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Jerusalem at the Apollo Theatre
London 2022
Photo by Simon Annand

Jerusalem – Footnotes (*)

Oct 21, 2022 | Footnotes | 0 comments

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.

Not listened to the episode yet? You’ll find it here.

The briefest of footnotes: I don’t believe that in our conversation in the podcast we made reference to Butterworth’s choice of Byron as Rooster’s surname. Although Rooster doesn’t include him in his litany of ancestors at the end of the play, we surely associate the name with the archetypal roistering, romantic figure of the English poet, Lord Byron. Lord Byron’s wife Annabella apparently coined the term ‘Byromania’ to refer to the ‘commotion’ surrounding him, a commotion that ends in flames in Rooster’s case of course.

The Wikipedia entry on the poet yields such arresting analogies with Rooster as a Byronic hero that I cannot resist quoting directly from it. It defines the latter as “an idealised, but flawed character whose attributes include great talent; great passion; a distaste for society and social institutions; a lack of respect for rank and privilege…; being thwarted in love by social constraint…; rebellion; exile; an unsavoury secret past; arrogance; overconfidence or lack of foresight; and ultimately, a self-destructive manner.” The playwright might just have used this for Rooster’s character notes. The last two in the list sadly seem to evoke the inevitable tragedy of Rooster’s destiny.



Peter Pan
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

The lost boys
In our conversation in the podcast David identified Rooster as a kind of “middle-aged Peter Pan”, with his retinue of lost boys. There are certainly suggestions, however, that it would be in the best interests of the boys that they grow up and escape Rooster’s hedonistic hold. In the case of Lee, for example, it is obvious that for him to grow up he must launch himself out into the wider world by leaving on his trip to Australia. Davey insists that Lee must go, because he instinctively recognizes that once Lee’s begun to feel that Flintock just isn’t enough for him, he won’t ever be happy if he stays.

It is wonderful how Butterworth does not judge Davey for choosing differently. He works in the local abattoir, and lives to party at the weekend. Davey has a long speech near the end of the play where he says that he is content with his life, no matter that others may think he has limited curiosity: “I can’t help it if I like it here. I can’t help it if I’m happy.” It’s ok to stay put, if that’s the soil you thrive in

On the other hand, Ginger is past the time of life where he should move on. When Rooster asks him near the end, “why are you still here?”, and tells him bluntly “We’re not friends. I’m not your friend”, it is a brutally shocking moment. We feel Ginger’s bewilderment and hurt in his “I thought we was mates”. So why does Rooster reject Ginger’s offer to stay and fight the police with him? Perhaps he saw Ginger run away when Troy and his brothers were beating him up, and he may have felt betrayed by his not coming to his aid.  At the very least he knows that Ginger is not really a fighter. But I think there may be a more generous motive. He may ironically be protecting him from being brought down with him, and in a larger sense he knows that Ginger needs to cut his ties to him, to grow up and make his own way. Rooster is ejecting him from the nest. Finally of course Rooster stands alone.

There were any number of wonderful theatrical moments in the production of the play that was recently revived in London. Some of these are down to the playwright and his dramatic skill, others to the creativity of director, Ian Rickson, and Mark Rylance as Rooster. Our first introduction to Rooster, for example, is explosive. He appears out of his caravan bare chested, wearing a helmet and goggles and lets off a blast from an air horn through a loudhailer. He proceeds to dunk his hungover head in an animal trough of water, before downing a disgusting mixture of milk, vodka and raw egg spiked with speed. All these details are described in Butterworth’s stage directions, though the famous moment when Rylance stands himself up on his hands over the water trough was presumably his inspiration because the text specifies that he more modestly “kneels and sticks his head in the trough.”

The glade in which Rooster’s caravan sits becomes an echo of Shakespeare’s pastoral settings, existing separate from the outside world, where magical things are also possible. The woods are a place of mystery, where mythical pagan figures may dwell, and where untamed nature rules. As the Professor and Rooster so eloquently describe.

There are so many spellbinding theatrical moments in the play and production:

  • When Johnny tells Dawn to look deep into his eyes, and she sees something and starts to shake. Against our rational judgement, we believe she has seen some deeper power within him.
  • When Rooster weaves the fantastic story of the giant who built Stonehenge and gave him the golden drum that hung from his ear, it builds to a moment of uncanny dramatic suspense, when he challenges the others to bang the drum to summon the giants. Just as they tentatively begin to bang the drum, Rooster’s son Marky appears, bringing the imaginative suspense to a sudden stop.
  • One of the most delightful creative touches in the staging of this scene is provided by Rylance stooping down to place his cigarette lighter on the floor to represent himself in scale to the imaginary giant. Theatrical magic.
  • Finally when Rooster bangs the drum in earnest at the climax of the play, is it our imagination or do the leaves on the trees surrounding the stage begin to tremble? It’s not explicit in the text, but it may just be a sign of some supernatural force that Rooster is conjuring. Such is the imaginative power of theatre.

The set of Jerusalem
Royal Court Theatre 2009


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