Rooster Byron is a legend. For a start, his mobile home outside Flintlock provides a place for local teenagers and assorted misfits to get drunk, get high, and party. However, he also has a complex, self-constructed, and often contradictory mythology, in spite of some people (namely: his mate Ginger) dismissing this heroic narrative as “bollocks”. Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth, tells the story of Byron through his interactions with his “band of educationally subnormal outcasts”, and with his arch-nemeses, Troy Whitworth, and the Kenton and Avon Council.
This brilliantly conceived production of Butterworth’s work is directed by Will Felton, and stars Barney Fishwick in the role of Rooster Byron, the play’s shambolic anti-hero. Rooster is a drug-dealer, a heavy drinker, and has fathered an unconfirmed number of illegitimate children across the South Wiltshire area. So far, so appropriately Byronic, and Fishwick’s handling of the play’s more comedic sections is masterful, drawing the audience into Rooster’s world and making them love a character who might on paper sound unsympathetic. Nonetheless, it is in more emotional moments that the extent of Fishwick’s talent really becomes apparent. It is almost impossible to remain unmoved during scenes in which Rooster’s façade of nonchalance breaks down into vengeful self-destruction, and intense investment in the stories he has half-jokingly related.
The supporting characters too are portrayed with energy and wit. Of particular note is Will Hislop’s Ginger: needy, the butt of everyone’s jokes, and possibly the only true friend Byron has amongst his various followers and hangers-on. Both Fishwick and Hislop have an enviable ability to make their characters, though infinite distances away from being model citizens, incredibly funny, and vulnerable enough to provoke heartfelt sympathy. Strong support is likewise on hand from Tom Pease and James Mooney — amusing as Australia-bound Lee and Irish barman Wesley.
The Keble O’Reilly is a versatile space, but rarely has it been so thoroughly transformed as for this production. The slightly scuzzy rural atmosphere of Byron’s wooded haunt is recreated with enviable attention to detail, right down to the turf which lines the floor of the stage, and the empty beer cans scattered haphazardly across it. Byron’s home seems to grow organically out of the countryside in all its ramshackle, Bacchanalian glory.
Byron’s dispute with the council might be the most obvious example of how nature and civilisation are visibly at loggerheads in this drugged-up, beaten-down pastoral, but it’s there too in the disconnect between commercialised elements of May Day celebrations at Flintlock Fair, and more primal, pagan tradi- tions that lie beneath this veneer of civil festivity. The play examines this conflict between nature and humanity, order and chaos, and reminds us that it’s not always as clear-cut as it may seem — the townsfolk are reliant on the underworld maintained by Byron to get their illicit thrills, and sometimes, the greatest dangers of all dwell within the houses and homes of Flintlock, and not in this Arcadia of eternal adolescence after all.
Butterworth’s play takes its name from a title given to William Blake’s And Did Those Feet In Ancient Time, and it picks out a strand of the poem often ignored in its popular, patriotic usage as an anthem of Englishness. As well as myths, socially accepted truths are questioned in a way of which the poet would be proud. Rooster Byron heart-wrenchingly and perhaps tragically calls on a faith in an older Britain, an ancient, untamed Albion, of which he is the last, doomed, remnant. Blake’s poem speculates as to whether such an idyllic past could have existed — Butterworth’s play asks its audience the same question.