ARTYFACTS: Jerusalem - Apollo Theatre

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Jerusalem - Apollo Theatre

Is Jerusalem is a dysfunctional Midsummer Night’s Dream? Comic, set in the woods as deliberate antithesis to city/town, youngsters who see the woods as freedom, lawlessness versus the law, fairies, characters driven by potions and drugs. There’s even the rude mechanicals who come in at the end, but with violent intent.

Rooster Byron is the larger-than-life Oberon, who lords it over his young acolytes. As someone who is not English, it seemed to me to mine a rich and true vein – that being English means a fond attachment to the past and the countryside. More than any other nation I know, its natives dream of a ‘green and pleasant land’. From the Archers to the National Trust, the English love the idea of England as arcadia. Even rock stars, from the Stones to Blur, aspire to buy a country pile and play the Country Squire.

But this play moves that well worn debate on. The woods and Rooster Byron are not ideals. The real mythology of the woods is of the paganism, Woden, the bogeyman. England is a place torn between town and country, politeness and drunkeness, empire and little England. Each character is therefore gored on the horns of a dilemma. The pub landlord (brilliant performance by Gerard Hoden) is forced to be a Morris Dancer and feel demeaned by the fact that he’s having to play the fool for commerce. In other words, forget that crap Victorian veneer of Englishness, the truth is very different. Being English is to escape from the stifling formality of politeness into the revels of drink and drugs. Mackenzie Crook is the aspiring DJ, England’s musicians reduced to miming US culture. The others are lost souls, who have nothing at their core to believe in or aspire to.

I may be wrong here but the title and resonance of the song and lyrics Jerusalem suggests to me that Rooster Byron was a sort of English Jesus, a second coming. He preaches, speaks sometimes in parables and is crucified by the authorities and people. He dies for England’s sins – branded with a cross-iron, the cross of St David across the whole set.

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

Beneath this poem Blake inscribed "Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets"

Is Roostser Byron that prophet?

It really is Blake’s message of an England that recoils from the brutality and banality of industrialisation, which has extra resonance today.

If I were English, this play would disturb me, as I’m not, I was more of an observer. However, this is England, and nobody shows their emotions. I’d have liked to have seen this play at the Globe, with the pit full of non-theatre types with a bellyful of beer.


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