Jez Butterworth Plays: Two

Jez Butterworth
Nick Hern Books

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Jez Butterworth

Jez Butterworth is something of a chameleon who works across different forms of creative media. Therefore, his theatrical creations are few and far between and this volume of three plays (plus a short film) represents the output of the best part of a decade.

It is also a reminder that he has written two of the finest works of the 21st century, both of which stand up to the deeper interrogation that is possible on reading a text as compared with a one-off visit to a theatre.


This reviewer knows at least one friend who cites Jerusalem as the best play that he has ever seen. Others may argue with this ranking but few could deny that the piece, along with its central character Johnny Rooster Byron, is not only an important commentary on Britain a decade ago but also great fun, even without the imposing presence of Mark Rylance at its centre.

Set on St George’s Day in a Wiltshire that is far losing its character and succumbing to modern-day mediocrity, the play centres on a community led by the ultimate dropout, Mr Byron.

He is indubitably colourful, cares little for the law or social conformity but does manage to inspire love in a ragtag group comprising all ages but each and every one of whom seems to be deeply psychologically damaged.

Johnny’s battles with authority predate the play by decades but come to a head with sad inevitability, threatening the end of an era and making some serious symbolic comments about Britain when the play was first performed at the Royal Court in 2009 and, possibly even more so, as Boris Johnson and the pandemic combine in an effort to change its nature forever.

The Clear Road Ahead

While this screenplay might only last a few minutes, it is a joyous affirmation of life and the ability of both man and nature to overcome almost any kind of setback.

Without wishing to give the game away, it portrays a businessman who travels to speak at a conference or sales pitch and fails to do himself justice.

What follows is literally disastrous, but, by using excess to make a point, speaks volumes.

The River

While Jez Butterworth shines when painting on the broadest of canvasses in plays such as Jerusalem and The Ferryman, he also writes quieter, more reflective miniatures.

The River is a short, rather mysterious piece about a fishing-obsessed man taking a lover to his country cottage and introducing her to the joys of sitting on a riverbank with a rod and line.

Ostensibly, the plot is simple, allowing viewers to delve into the history of the couple and the nature of love but also to experience, by report, the joys of catching a whopper.

Depth and mystery are added by elements of repetition, with much of the drama occurring between the lines rather than explicitly.

The Ferryman

In the theatre, The Ferryman, which was directed by Sam Mendes, was undoubtedly something very special. It therefore comes as no surprise to discover that the text is equally gripping.

Ideally, this review should have been written by somebody from Northern Ireland with a deep understanding of the political history of the Province.

To this critic, everything about the play appears to be completely authentic, which is a great compliment to the playwright.

Jez Butterworth’s attention to detail becomes obvious before a word is spoken, since the directions to designers regarding the cottage in which the drama unfolds are both detailed and meticulous.

This is the home of the extended Carney family. They stretch across the generations and have historic links with the IRA. Indeed, the catalyst for the drama is the discovery in the early 1980s a decade after his death of the body of executed Seamus Carney.

Its discovery sets in train a series of events that involve the whole family, not to mention some cousins and a particularly nasty trio of terrorists.

The pleasures of this play lie in the creation of a weird and wonderful selection of characters from three generations of the family, along with an English outsider, combined with some incisive political commentary about the Troubles, exacerbated by Margaret Thatcher and an increasingly long list of dead hunger strikers. If this sounds like serious stuff, it is also frequently hilarious.

Readers might argue the toss over whether Jerusalem or The Ferryman is the stronger piece but few could deny that they are both amongst the best plays of their era.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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