Sonia Friedman Productions and Royal Court Theatre
They are coming for Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Mark Rylance), the central character in the play Jerusalem first performed at the Royal Court in 2009. A notice is stuck to the door of his home, the ancient railway carriage in the middle of the West Country woodlands. The authorities are coming for those woodlands as well. They intend to build a new housing estate that requires the woodland that has been around for a thousand years to be destroyed.
To make sure the detail of their cruelty has been carried out, the officials delivering the notice film themselves saying it will give Byron nine hours to vacate the area or be forcibly evicted to allow bulldozers to erase everything we see.
This brilliant, highly topical three-hour twenty-minute play, that seems to pass very quickly, takes us through his nine-hour day with the outcasts and the escapees from the dull life of the world beyond the forest.
The show opens with Eleanor Worthington-Cox as the fifteen-year-old Phaedra with fairy wings singing William Blake's "Jerusalem" before a huge English flag, its words proclaiming “we will build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.” The curtain rises to a brief glimpse of a wild, exciting rave outside of Byron’s home. It is one version of what is being created but another is going to arrive before the play’s end.
The scene shifts to the morning after, bringing first that threatening notice and then the emergence of some of those at the rave. Each tells Ginger (Mackenzie Crook), who didn't know the rave was happening, that he missed a good one. He is an unemployed plasterer who says he will one day be a deejay. But the world they live in is not enough for Lee (Jack Riddiford), who has booked himself on a flight to Australia for later that day, despite the protestations of Tanya (Charlotte O’Leary), who wants to build a life with him locally.
In contrast, Davey (Ed Kear), who works in an abattoir slaughtering cattle, can’t imagine himself ever moving out of the area and regards even the next district as a foreign land. Wesley, who runs the local pub, seems caught between two worlds, wanting acceptance from both but inevitably frustrated and tired of the world beyond Byron’s corner.
They spend the day swapping stories, hearing Byron’s tales of being kidnapped by a group of traffic wardens and having met a giant on the A14. When someone wonders why the giant wasn't reported on BBC Points West, Davey says he isn’t surprised given the station no longer reports what is happening locally.
The humorous conversations, the drugs, the alcohol, the tall stories bond the group together and give them a lively entertaining sense of purpose. However, the third section of the play becomes more unsettling as Phaedra's abusive stepfather comes looking for her, while dozens of police assemble on the edge of the wood preparing to evict Byron.
His home is draped with a huge banner reading, “fuck the new estate,” and what is described as a “band of educationally subnormal outcasts” gathers to defend his home.
It is hard to imagine any of this going well for Byron, but a final image of a bloodied figure banging a drum that the group had earlier been told would bring the help of giants is an inspiring hopeful moment that left some of the audience in tears. It also reminded me of similar images of those trying to protect the ancient woodland of the Chilterns from the ravaging advance of HS2.
On Tuesday 26 April, I joined others outside Parliament protesting the last stages of the government’s repressive Police bill which was to become law that evening and make the lives of people like Byron unbearable.
In the programme notes for Jerusalem, Tom Margetson, a campaigner for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller rights, says the new law will criminalise such people. The professional organisation for social workers, BASW, refers to the effects of the law as being inhuman. It makes this play more relevant and urgent than it has ever been.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna