Charlotte O’Leary – Tanya
Mark Rylance – Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron
Mackenzie Crook – Ginger
Kemi Awoderu – Pea
Ed Kear – Davey
Photo by Simon Annand
050 – Jerusalem, by Jez Butterworth
Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem opens with the recitation of two verses of the patriotic English hymn penned by William Blake. As the title and the opening would suggest, the play is an exploration of English identity, but it approaches it through a strikingly singular lens – that of the character of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron, an anarchic, anti-hero who is a thorn in the side of the established authorities and many of the local residents of the fictional west-country town of Flintock. Byron’s caravan squats illegally in Rooster Wood, and local youth come to him seeking drugs, drink and escape from their constrictive lives, in the way of successive generations of young people. Rooster represents a practical challenge to the peace of the town, and to the idea and values of modern English society.
Jerusalem was greeted by extraordinary acclaim when it premiered at the Royal Court theatre in London in 2009. The rapturous response to that production was directed at both the play and the astounding performance by Mark Rylance in the lead role of Rooster Byron. Jerusalem became a landmark theatrical event, acquiring a kind of mythical status as one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments in live theatre for those who were lucky enough to have been there. As it turns out, it was not a singular moment, because the show has been revived this year in London’s West End with almost entirely the same cast, including Rylance, and directed once again by Ian Rickson. It is appropriate that we mark the 50th episode of our podcast with a play that is undoubtedly one of the high-water marks of our time. The revival provides us another chance not only to revisit or discover this sensational theatrical experience, but also to explore the enduring qualities of the play itself. What is it about this text that weaves such magic upon us?
To answer this question and more about Jerusalem, I am joined today by someone who has been fortunate enough to have seen both incarnations of the play, and also studied the work of Jez Butterworth in great depth. He is David Ian Rabey, who is Emeritus Professor of Theatre and Theatrical Practice at Aberystwyth University where he taught for 35 years. He is also the author of The Theatre and Films of Jez Butterworth, published by Bloomsbury in 2015.
David has published numerous books on modern British and Irish theatre, including Theatre Time and Temporality (2016), English Drama Since 1940 (2003), and in-depth studies of specific dramatists: The Theatre and Films of Jez Butterworth (2015), Howard Barker: Ecstasy and Death (2009), David Rudkin: Sacred Disobedience (1997), Howard Barker: Politics and Desire (1989) and, most recently, Alistair McDowall’s POMONA (2018). He has published additional essays on these dramatists, and others, including: debbie tucker green, Ed Thomas, Ron Hutchinson; and on contemporary Gothic drama.
He is Artistic Director of Lurking Truth/Gwir sy’n Llechu Theatre Company, for which he has written six plays, the first four of which are published in the volumes: The Wye Plays (2004) and Lovefuries (2008). A third volume is intended.
David recommended Pomona by Alistair McDowell
The Footnotes to our episode on Jerusalem include thoughts on the choice of Byron for Rooster’s surname, his retinue of Lost Boys, and the wonders of the stagecraft in the play and London production.
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Shakespeare’s devastating exploration of race, reputation and jealousy, The Tragedy of Othello, The Moor of Venice was a popular success when it was first performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime, but in the centuries since it has provoked a wide range of responses as successive generations have grappled with the racial identity of the eponymous character. As we record this episode a new production of Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London views the play’s treatment of race through a contemporary lens, setting the play within the London Metropolitan police force, a topical environment for racial inspection.
I am privileged to welcome as my guest someone especially qualified to help us navigate the tricky waters of Shakespeare’s play, Farah Karim-Cooper, Director of Education at Shakespeare’s Globe, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Kings College London, and the author of The Great White Bard – Shakespeare, Race and the Future.
Ken Nwosu as Othello and Ralph Davies as Iago
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Photo by Johan Persson
Harold Pinter’s disturbing exploration of toxic masculinity and sexual maneuvering, The Homecoming premiered in 1965. The play’s portrait of misogyny, and even more disturbing, the apparent female complicity, was shocking at the time it was written. Nearly 60 years on the sexual politics is if anything even more difficult to watch. So what was Pinter’s purpose in presenting such a provocative piece, and how do we process it in the post Me-Too age?
I am joined by Matthew Dunster, the director of a scintillating new production of the play at the Young Vic in London, who can help us answer those questions about Pinter’s challenging classic.
Lisa Diveney as Ruth at the Young Vic – photo by Dean Chalkley.
Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama Ghosts provoked outrage when it was published in 1881, its treatment of sexual disease, incest and euthanasia too much for the critics. More than 140 years later its portrait of repressed truths and social hypocrisy remains as powerful as ever.
Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr of St Catherine’s College, Oxford, helps us review Ibsen’s unflinching drama.
Hattie Morahan as Helene Alving at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London, December 2023. Photo by Marc Brenner.