Preview: Jerusalem

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Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem offers an updated idyll of England, presenting a green and pleasant land in which promiscuity, alcoholism and drug addiction have replaced dragon-slaying and damsel-saving as the nation’s preferred pursuits.

The plot centres around Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, an aging drug addict living in a caravan in the woods next to a sleepy Wiltshire town. Hounded by upstanding citizens, plagued by eviction notices and accompanied by a gaggle of wastrel teenagers, Johnny’s quasi-bucolic life begins to unravel before him, with both hilarious and poignant consequences.

These may not seem like typical themes for Oxford drama, but Jerusalem is also laden with a coarse, naturalistic humour and, with a cast boasting such comedic talent as Will Hislop and Barney Fishwick, Director Will Felton evidently relishes the opportunity to stage the play at Keble’s O’Reilly Theatre in 4th Week.

“It’s a play that has in-built theatricality,” he tells me, when I ask why he chose Jerusalem, “and I love making theatre as live and theatrical as possible. There are scenes, like the opening one, which are pure spectacle and there is also a lot of theatricality in the ensemble scenes as well, with characters performing to each other, not just to the audience.”

The opening scene, a thumping rave sequence in front of Johnny’s caravwan, is described to me in detail. Felton is not wrong; his vision of the sequence is remarkably imaginative and, should it be pulled off as he wishes, will be a genuinely striking spectacle.

This theatricality of the tamer, dialogue-filled scenes is also evident in rehearsals I witness. Johnny, Ginger and Davey, played by Fishwick, Hislop and Tommy Simman respectively, take it in turns to ‘perform’, ruminating aloud on various themes to audible ribbing from other characters, who slouch around the edge of the space and thus create an arena in which these ‘performances’ take place. It is an effectively engaging device.

The play is also imbued with a naturalism that arises partly from Butterworth’s script and partly from an affected style that the cast have
been refining.

“Once everyone’s learnt their lines, that naturalism starts come through,” Simman tells me. “We’ve started to work off each other, ad-libbing insults and trying to react instinctively to the dialogue.

“It’s easier in the one-on-one scenes,” Fishwick interjects, “but with the ensemble scenes it is a lot harder. You have to stay awake and alert to react instinctively.”

A great deal of the play’s humour lies in this naturalism, in these unscripted asides and raucous exclamations, particularly as they are all spoken in a heavy West Country accent.

Central to the play is Fishwick’s Johnny, the forest-dwelling ‘English eccentric’ who is besieged on every side by conformists. He is a compellingly complex character who the audience is paradoxically able to sympathise with.

“I think the audience likes him because he is that classic release of the anti establishment figure we all secretly crave to be.” Fishwick continues, informing me, “That said, there is a brutal reality behind the endearing façade that becomes more obvious as the play goes on.

“He is a lonely middle-aged man who supplies teenagers with drink and drugs to preserve their company. He is the perfect hero of a modern-day fairytale where instead of slaying dragons, everyone just gets pissed and takes drugs.”

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