It’s St. George’s Day and Jez Butterworth’s [slider title=”Jerusalem“]
[/slider] is about to be evicted from the Apollo Theatre. Soon the miraculously lush forest glade (designed by Ultz) will be coming down, and Rooster Byron’s much-condemned, much dossed-under, much oohed-at (‘are those real chickens?’) caravan will finally be towed away. It’s a solemn day for London theatre. Let’s raise a glass to the passing of this green and pleasant dystopian squat, and – what do you mean you haven’t started drinking yet?
For anyone who’s been living deeper in the wilderness than the fabled man himself, Jerusalem is the tragical-comical-pastoral tale of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron; once a celebrated stunt-bike rider and now a whacked-out recluse, ever-ready to transform his appropriated patch of countryside into the site of an impromptu rave, benevolently peddling drugs and tall-stories to the shiftless local youth. It’s quite possibly the role Mark Rylance was born for: a magnificent, mad, charismatic composite of Falstaff, Henry V, King Arthur, Nick Bottom, Peer Gynt and Robin Hood, swaggering merrily through the Wiltshire greenwood, ever-ready to instigate some serious ruckus.
Yet Rylance’s Byron has become something of a national treasure. Hordes of well-heeled theatre-goers have flocked to applaud his not-so-much-principled-as-spectacularly-pissed resistance to the forces of mediocrity and local officialdom. That this determined purveyor of anti-social behaviour casts a Shakespearean shadow seems to have done wonders for his social acceptability. But it’s maybe a different dramatic progenitor of Rooster Byron who explains the sentimental fervour with which nicely-brought-up audiences have clasped Butterworth’s dangerously irresponsible waster to their collective bosom.
You see, from the moment that the increasingly-juvenile survivors of Byron’s night-before bash began crawling out of the woodwork, I was unable to shake the image of another set of subterranean children. Not only is there a tribe of apparently un-parented youngsters roaming about his hide-out, there’s even the odd pirate, redskin and fairy to be sighted among the motley and comprehensively lost crew. Admittedly, Tom Brooke and Mackenzie Crook are a mite overgrown for lost boys, but the hapless would-be and never-will-be approach to running their own lives espoused by Lee and Ginger makes J.M. Barrie’s perambulator-dodging gang look like paragons of strategic planning. Maybe it’s worth remembering that Peter Pan himself began life as an unwelcome squatter in the genteel Kensington Gardens, doing the rounds after lock-out time in search of infants lost in the night. And Rooster’s very moniker recalls Peter’s thrilling cry of exultation and defiance.
So, for me, the shade of Peter Pan haunts the Butterworth’s anti-heroic bruiser, casting a fantastical, melancholic glamour over the realities of rural poverty, criminality and violence. And, of course, one of the great charms of Neverland is that its triumphs and tragedies are never, never being thrashed out in our own real-life back yards.