Jerusalem – Helen Tonkin brings Jez Butterworth to lucky Sydney. (theatre review)

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s 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 England’s green and pleasant land.

William Blake
Like his namesake, Johnny Byron is a countryman known for his celebrated life of excess including debt, love affairs, scandals, self-imposed exile and a penchant for mythology that may be true, probably isn’t, but may be true.  Unlike his namesake, Johnny “Rooster” Byron is not a Lord, although he is lord of his own life, and lord of his own tin weather beaten mobile home that he plonked on the outskirts of an English forest in Wiltshire in which he dispenses drugs and alcohol to the local ocean of disaffected youths and various hangers-on. Johnny Rooster Byron is England itself, with all its historical greatness and all its contemporary problems. He is a larger than life hero in the true Shakespearean sense, a man of enviable presence of mind and potent charismatic charm, not necessarily likeable, but fantastic in his enormous glory none the less. He is the personification of English mythology, sharing his drugs, his booze and meager possessions on St Georges Day, the morning of the local towns fair. But Rooster Byron isn’t without his problems; The overzealous local council want him gone, his distant son wants him to take him to the fair, his enemies want him beaten to a pulp, and all the others want drugs, money or booze in a succession of colorful characters each with a monologue that emphasizes a distant dream of an England that might have been, but probably never really was.
There are many reasons to love Jez Butterworths enormous play Jerusalem, particularly in a land that has such close ties with the country it speaks so lovingly about. Australia has an awkward affinity with England, made all the more complicated by the state of our indigenous population in the wake of colonization here. No matter how much Australian’s love to hate the homeland, it will always be the place we see ourselves, the springboard of our separateness and the mother of our white culture. Jerusalem is honest about the land of the giants, Stone Henge, Morris dancers, crappy local fairs and the majesty of a mythology that celebrates an elusive idea of an England that still exists in the most unlikely of places. The contemporary language swathed in history rings in the ears and the hearts as reference after reference to a culture so close to our own is dissected and made real. Besides Blake’s poem that speaks of the legend of Jesus making his visit to England, spliced in the witty dialogue are Robin Hood, Puc, the Green Man, John Barlycorn and George and the Dragon, just to name a few.
And now, here in Sydney Australia, for the first time we are lucky enough to have this wonderful play brought to our own stage through the precise direction of Helen Tonkin and the charismatic performance of Nicholas Eadie as “Rooster” Byron. Jerusalem is an enormous play – it has to be to accommodate its gigantic leading man – and a daunting effort for any Company to tackle.  However, the creative team at the New Theatre are up the job, with Tonkin and Eadie familiar with Butterworths earlier plays, strong in their grasp of the work.  The play was as big a success as it could be when performed in the UK, particularly at the West End, and translated well to the Broadway scene. Now, it is before a new audience, an Australian audience, ready to be swept up into the nostalgic breadth that Jerusalem inhabits. It is two hours and forty minutes long, with two intervals, but the strength of Eadie’s performance coupled with the nostalgic view of a world that has no time for security cameras, internet connections and the accompanying sanitisation we have all grown to accept, carries the audience along its length, laughing all the way.
Along side Eadie are a cast of thirteen actors including Todd Backhouse, Luke Carson, Anna Chase, Tara Clark, Brynn Loosemore, Emma Louise,  Peter McAllum, Lucy McNabb, Pete Nettell, Alex Norton, Claire Wall, Simon Ward, and Jeremy Waters as long time friend of Byron, Ginger. Bookending the first two acts are Anna Chase as Phaedra singing a capella the beautiful words of ‘Jerusalem’, dressed as a wood nymph, her role doubling as the young girl taking refuge from her abusive step father in Roosters van. Everyone is strong, the accent coaching from Emma Louise giving a strong sense of place without alienating the audience nor consuming half the words. The News Theatre stage has been transformed into a giant wood-perched slum the van’s corrugated walls serving as a backdrop for the rambling mess of souls singing their way into everyone’s heart.
However, at the central pulse of the play, and its complete powerhouse is Eadie as Rooster, bringing all the might the role asks, oozing the charisma of giants as he crosses the stage. I got tears in my eyes in his final drum monologue, the force of his Byron reaching me across time and country.
This is a wonderful production that is on at The New Theatre until September 14.  Do yourself a favor and get along to a performance. You can buy your tickets here.
All photograph credits go to Photograph © Matthias Engesser