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Butterworth's Jerusalem: the full English

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Paul Mason | 16:47 UK time, Friday, 18 December 2009

[Back in July I promised to write a blog about Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem. Here, finally, it is.]

"This, Wesley, is a historic day," says a middle aged drunken traveller, posed at the front of his caravan with various no-hopers, low-lifes, teenage runaways and misfits from semi-rural England..."For today I Rooster Byron and my band of educationally subnormal outcasts shall swoop and raze your poxy village to dust. In a thousand years Englanders will awake this day and bow their heads and wonder at the genius, guts and guile of the Flintock Rebellion..."

It's just one glorious speech out of many from Jez Butterworth's play Jerusalem, staged at the Royal Court Theatre this summer with Mark Rylance in the role of Johnny "Rooster" Byron, and set to be revived early in 2010.

Butterworth's play achieves two things: in Rooster he has created one of the most compelling, complex and iconic characters in modern British theatre; at the same time he has managed to capture an era in British political and social life at the very moment of its ending.

Jerusalem was five years in the writing and depicts the life of a poor-ish, prospectless, rave-addicted, casual drug using, unskilled social group that is absolutely central to the society we live in, but which the media barely notices exists. It captures their reality better than any soap opera and their dreams better than any tawdry Saturday night talent show.

Life for such people is about to get very tough. Indeed, the economic data tells us that the UK's "flexible labour market" has already been the key to avoiding mass unemployment. The real life Daveys, Lees and Tanyas have gone on short time, taken pay cuts, slept on floors at their mates' houses, worked for no wages (in what our parents' generation used to call overtime).

They have scrabbled around the bargain shelves of major supermarkets, shopped in the pound shops, borrowed from doorstep lenders and bunged their electrical goods into Britain's booming pawnbroking sector. As we go into 2010, they will now be faced with an economic "recovery" in which public services are cut, benefits are very likely frozen or slashed, credit is in short supply and all political parties implore them to "help themselves" and become "social entrepreneurs".

The sociology of Jerusalem is interesting: Rooster is a drug-dealer and fairground daredevil rider, a kind of anti-social entrepreneur. In real life he would be drawing some kind of benefit. Of the three young male foils to Rooster, Lee is "a pisshead and a wizzhead" about to emigrate to Australia; Ginger is an unemployed plasterer with delusions of being a DJ; Davey is a slaughterman. The West End theatre reviewers tended to describe this demographic as a "bucolic underclass", "wastrels", "waifs and strays".

But the power of the play lies in the fact that Rooster's band of outcasts are not at all marginal to real life in Britain. They are only marginal to the "real life" portrayed on soap operas and the slick, unreal drama series that British TV specialises in making - and of course to the pop tribute shows and star vehicles that clutter the West End.

Jerusalem then, is real. The plasterer, the DJ, the weekend drug dealer, the ex-squaddie looking to work abroad, the bored slaughterman - are mainstream figures in the real English workforce and down the real English pub: two million ecstasy tablets are taken in Britain every week; one in eight young people are not in work, education or training; 15% of all households claim in-work benefits.

Also real is the effing and blinding which seems to have uniformly discomforted the mainstream theatre critics: the swear wordcount in Jerusalem is acutally low compared to reality, and the swearing is generally genial, compared to reality where it is often aggressive, racist and violent. This, then, is the real English spoken by something close to the majority of real people: it's an indictment of the state of theatre (also, while I am at it, English literature, which has recently become dominated by surreal narratives told in a kind of quasi-poetry) that the language of Jerusalem is seems so challenging to theatregoers and critics alike. For this alone Jerusalem will go down as one of the great plays of the decade.

But Jerusalem's greatness is that it is also hyper-real. In Rooster Byron the playwright has created a character who both embodies, understands and rebels against everything that is wrong with this real England. (I am deliberately not writing here about Mark Rylance's superb rendition of Byron, because I think the play is even bigger than the performance).

A relentless fantasist and purveyor of tall stories to his mates, Rooster is also the protector of runaway kids abused by their parents, a serial rebel against the planning department of Kennet and Avon council, the local bogeyman whose anti-social behaviour can fill the local church hall with outraged Rotarians ("You get a cup of tea. Flapjack. Then they all sit down on foldy chairs and go beserk."). He is also a force of nature: Falstaff and Henry V in the same body, the original Green Man of pagan folklore whose face vomiting vegetation can be found on the corbels of early medieval churches all over England.

And he embodies magic. At the centre of the play, which is dark in ways impossible to discuss without revealing the plot, is the ambiguity between Rooster's tall tale telling (I will call it that because this is a BBC blog but you know the word I am thinking of) and the tantalising question of whether or not he really has magical powers. Is the 90ft tall giant who once gave Rooster an earring in the shape of a golden drum on Salisbury Plain, and who will one day be Rooster's own personal close protection guy in showdown with Kennet and Avon Council, real or imaginary?

By placing this unreal, magical, flawed, wounded, complex character onstage amid an unflinching portrayal of real life in low-skill, low-pay, low-horizon England ("When I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop," says one character) Butterworth asks layer upon layer of questions about the society we live in.

And the biggest one is this: what would happen if this happy go lucky world of cheap booze, semi-employment, casual sex, Saturday night raves etc were one day disrupted by something serious. What if the music stopped, the benefit office closed its doors and the caravan got dragged away by the council.

The coming fiscal crunch has made this a relevant question. Because Butterworth's characters are captured at the end of an era of debt-fuelled consumption, cheap credit and amoralistic drift. When we sit in London and say: the Greeks' lifestyle can't go on; or Latvia is living above its means; or Dubai was a dream built on sand, Butterworth's play shows us there are equally telling observations to be made about British society in the era of Shopacheck and whizz at £3 a tab.

And what still stuns me is how new and raw and original and terrifying life in semi-rural working class Britain seems when viewed through the experience of Rooster and his mates. And the very low chances of escaping it.

As whizzhead Lee explains to slaughterman Davey:

"Ever since I've known you, come Tuesday you ain't never got a pound for a saveloy. You're broke...You are a sad, fat povvo what thinks he's Alan Sugar. You're going to live your whole life with the same ****ing people, going to the same s*** pubs, kill two million cows and die a sad fat povvo."

Davey, capturing the spirit that has sustained the downtrodden English bloke from Agincourt to Helmand replies:

"Sounds unimproveable".


Jez Butterworth's "Jerusalem" is published by Nick Hern Books in association with the Royal Court Theatre. The Royal Court production reopens at London's Apollo Theatre in January.


  • Comment number 1.

    ..what would happen if this happy go lucky world of cheap booze, semi-employment, casual sex, Saturday night raves etc were one day disrupted by something serious. What if the music stopped, the benefit office closed its doors and the caravan got dragged away by the council...

    one can look at how society was before those things existed [ Dickens?] or look at the those current countries where those do not exist[iraq, afghanistan etc]?

    peace [nation building-remember there is no official science] does not drop out of the sky as some think. It is an artificial state created through engineering both social and physical. Wellington designed central london like a napoleonic fort in response to the threat of the french revolution. The speakers soapbox was moved from the old horse fair at Trafalgar square to Hyde park as they figured it would take any rabble whipped up by revolutionary rhetoric longer to march to westminster, perhaps in the rain, past lots of pubs.

    Trafalgar square was designed so it could be defended by a small number of troops. The houses of parliament were build with one side to the river so it could not be surrounded by a mob. Wellington had observed that anything that could be surrounded could be defeated.

    the drinking classes have always been the same except for sociologists calling them lower working class to give them some dignity.

    the relentless fantasist sounds like the idols of society that are perpetuated down the dog and duck. although the pub no longer is the meeting place for an immigration busted society where towns boast of having 100 languages spoken [but not to each other!]. where it is possible to spend you whole life with no english and little contact with the indigenous and stay in the local ghetto watching satellite tv from the 'real homeland' and reading chatrooms on the internet?

    the john bull idiom does still exist but these days one wonders if it is still the dominant one?

  • Comment number 2.

    I have a question, and I think it is worthy of investigation by some clever clued-up economic type journalists, about severance pay.

    We are begining to see the first redundancies amongst middle and senior managers in the public sector. No doubt, in 2010 this trickle will become a flood. But we are already hearing all sorts of public sector vested interests, from the unions to public sector managers themselves, talking about the vast sums of redundancy payments that would be required per individual.

    Can someone therefore please explain to me why sacked and redundant public sector workers should be entitled to anything more than the legally required statutory minimum severance pay? Why on earth should any public sector manager made redundant in the coming cuts be paid private sector, dare I say banker, style redundancy payments?

    If we are not careful this will sneak in under the fence and potentially vast sums, not legally required, will be paid by tax-payers to make public sector managers 'comfortable' in their unemployment. After all, who is deciding on the sums that are paid? Ah, I see, it will be public sector managers themselves deciding on how much is paid.

    Stories are already appearing in online news sites of potential £100,000 redundancy sums being paid to, for example, some NHS managers. Surely not? Surely this is wrong? How long would anyone have to be working for an organisation, and how much would your salary be, in order for the statutory minimum redundancy pay to be worth £100,000? Something is not right here. Collectively, these payments could be hundreds of millions in 2010 if not billions.

    Someone please ask a politician who decides on the sums paid - and why do they appear to be well above the statutory required legal payment?

  • Comment number 3.

    It is sad the No. 2 should abuse the really stimulating Mason blog by working out their myopic obsession with the severance pay of sacked public sector workers. What the play is aimed at is the fundamental fragmentation of our society but where the 'underclass' is in a ignored powerless minority (albeit measured in millions) that the rest strive to ignore or judge but at the extreme may undermine the sustainability of our society.

  • Comment number 4.

    I think, No. 3 - do you always refer to people by numbers - that many of the regular contributors to Paul's blog go off on tangents and that the posts often result in some stimulating and powerful debate here.

    Your point is well made even though I had to read it several times before I could make head or tail of what you were saying. Nevertheless, it is well made.

    I still have someone who messages me once a week complaining of all the 'blank space' that is 'filling up' the Internet and warning me not to use spaces, paragraphs or even a blank space in my posts.

    Personally, I am all in favour of blank spaces and, although sometimes I disagree with it, I will defend other people's right to write nothing at all.

    What does myopic mean?

  • Comment number 5.

    Is all a question of justice. There's a feeling abroad that justice has been absent since Lehmans collapsed.

    Before I rage too much I reminded myself of the underclass of migrant workers and urbanites in China. Intensifying production with capital has displaced 20-50 million (including dependents) and forced them into severe poverty.The PRC has initiated the dibao, a form of minimum wage administered by local metropolitan areas. If you are successful in getting the hand-out you are known as a dibaohu. This apparently has become an underclass in its own right. The process involved in getting the hand-out is draconian. There are physical investigations of your home, notices of your circumstances published for neighbours to challenge or comment upon. Conditions are applied to exclude you from benefitting. Each city can impose differing criteria and thresholds ( set generally below the average wage) eg use of motorised vehicles, mobile phones, computers can be taken as evidence against your entitlement.You can be debarred in some cities if you dispute/abuse the oficials. If efforts are made to add to income as an increment to the dibao, the household can be stripped of entitlement creating a poverty-trap and a stigmatised permanence to your dibaohu-status.

    It helps me to look outward sometimes.

  • Comment number 6.

    There is much genuine passion and insight within 'Jerusalem' and your observations of the same.

    I will be happy to read it but I suspect it will be preaching to the converted in my case.

    The prevailing social and economic momentum is hugely behind the dynamics you describe as embodied within the play and the characters.

    I guess that is the tragedy of it. There are many who can see that dynamic unfolding like a slow motion car crash but there is no tangible answer to it. It is as if it has to play itself out, no intervention is possible, part of the 'natural' process of development and decline, re-invention aqnd re-development (was it not ever so?).

    There is no philosophical or real architecture in place to latch onto. All the existing architecture of the underying form of our society actually feeds it while pretending to be outraged by it.

    To expand on No.1 Wellington had it easy, of his time there was a solid social, economic and religious vision of the world upon which he drew he subconsciously built his plans upon.

    Inside every feckless cheap booze, drug and internet dominated lifestyle there is a 'John Bull' waiting to emerge.

    As Jerusalem suggests you do need a 'bit of magic' to set it free.....

    Merry Christmas everyone.

    or alternatively

    "happy winter solstace''

    Depending on which version of 'magic' you believe in.

  • Comment number 7.

    BoE base rate held at 0.5%

    Shopacheck loans - 254.5% APR typical

    Shopacheck loans provided by
    Welcome Financial Services Limited. Welcome Financial Services Limited is authorised and regulated by the Financial Services Authority (FSA). Our FSA Register number is 305742.

    Paul, what sort of regulation allows interest rates of 254.5% ?

    I thought loan sharking was illegal in the UK.

    There is and always was an underclass in the UK, what is different about this recession is that a lot of the middle classes will find themselves propelled and unprepared, through no fault of their own, into this underworld where life is cheap, degradation at the hands of officialdom is common and the phrase *'You are not welcome here' is often directed at you and your like.
    ( * that's the posh version, the real one begins with an F)

    The play sounds good though, gritty reality in the tradition of 'Cathy comes home', 'Made in Britain' and even 'Boys from the blackstuff'.
    The swearing is normal parlance in all sectors now, presumably you laugh at 'The Thick of It'.
    I won't be seeing it though at £55 a ticket direct from the Apollo, thats 8 hours at minimum wage, I'll have to wait for the screenplay or the video.

    The only problem I have with commentaries like 'Jerusalem' is that they reinforce the scapegoatism of those recreational drug taking/drinking, edge of society individuals as the source of todays social ills and never point the spotlight at the top echelons who profit from these behaviour patterns, the banks who laundered £300billion of illicit drugs money to stay afloat as well as taking the taxpayer for a ride.

    Last thing, whizz is speed usually in powder form (amphetamines = billy whizz)
    E's are tabletted (MDMA = Extacy = ebeneezer)

    3 quid per extacy tablet explains the growth in useage, it was a tenner a tab when it first appeared, amphetamine prices appear to have maintained stability over the same period so useage of this drug also appears stable.

  • Comment number 8.

    Bravo, Paul

    Next point - what are we gonna do about it?
    Just observe?

    This is our time. And clearly we do have the numbers


    barring that

    where's my ecstasy tab?

  • Comment number 9.

    6 ...of his time there was a solid social, economic and religious vision of the world upon which he drew he subconsciously built his plans upon...

    there was a run on the bank of england which was only stopped because they paid out in coppers [they were heavy]. Much of what he did was in opposition to the power structures of the day. If one reads wellingtons time in government he hated it.

    there are solid visions of the world today. if they are right or good or just- that is another matter.

    off the top of my head the 'solid visions' of today are Neocon [war on terror], Maoism [e.g Nepal was recently conquered], Maoism lite or One World Government vision [aka as climate change and involves carbon trading and 'climate justice' as means to get money to fund it and to be run through a specially trained cadre of leaders] mainly driven by Maurice Strong [great fan of China] so one might end up calling it Strongism or rich kid Maoism. There are still the usual visions of the world based on race,religion, celebrity etc. Those haven't gone.

    there are still competing models of society. the most dangerous one at the moment is Moaism lite [replacing the Neocon as No1] or what for some reason is jedi mind tricked called 'climate change'.

    wellingtons answer to 'the confusion of visions' was duty. which then became the dominant theme for a long while. It was uks 'duty' to 'civilise' the world', it was a person's duty to 'help the poor etc. Even today the Queen always talks of 'duty' although since the duty generation got wiped out in WW1 its not a common theme in uk society.

  • Comment number 10.


    Hmmm perhaps you are right, it merely seems like there is no vision because we can see them all in an age of global communication. I dont think the populous was exposed to a multitude of 'visions' in wellingtons time in the same way as we are today.

    When you are bombarded with them all on a daily basis, it plays out like visionless fragmented chaos..pretty much as seen in Copenhagen with predictable results.

    I guess in the past you only got exposed to one or two 'visions' which makes it easier to pin your duty to one or the other. It would be nice to think that 'duty' as a positive attribute is independent of vision but I dont think it is, as demonstrated by the Naziz and some famous experiments in human psychology since.

    The theme that I keep defaulting back to is philosophy, which (at its core) operates on a deeper level than 'visions'.

    I dont think we are re-playing history this time around, there is a breakthrough to be had similar to Einsteins and Bohr but in the field of consciousness. I see signs of it emerging and when it does it will blow apart any convensional concept of 'vision'.

  • Comment number 11.

    Jericoa had a think and then wrote:

    'I dont think we are re-playing history this time around, there is a breakthrough to be had similar to Einsteins and Bohr but in the field of consciousness. I see signs of it emerging and when it does it will blow apart any convensional concept of 'vision'.'

    - - - -

    A friend of mine did a 6 year study into near death experiences within a clinical environment and she is convinced that we are on the verge of some new understanding of ourselves and our place in the Universe.

    There is a meeting of science, of the metaphysical and of quantum theory that some very clever leading minds are involved in... but who keep very quiet about out of fear of their professional reputations and careers being rubbished. However, many do believe we are within a few decades of this greater understanding or 'vision'.

    On a different note, why all the fuss about Google not paying any tax? Surely the journalists who have found this out do not think that Google is the only US tech company who has this benefit in the UK? Do some more digging oh UK journalists and you never know what you might find.

    Actually, having listened to so many IT-illiterate politicians and cabinet ministers belittle, outsource and rubbish the UK IT industry whilst outsourcing UK IT jobs, bringing in punitive taxes such as IR35 aimed at UK IT workers and then moaning about why no Google is ever set-up in the UK... I have a certain strange feeling in my bones about this Google non-tax thing.

    I think it is called irony.

  • Comment number 12.


    I find it a genuine relief to hear that the unification of quantum observer 'wierdness' is being looked at in its proper context. I was beginning to wonder if all scientists had been hobbled by an aritotolian education. It is good to know that there are some free thinkers in the right places with the right backgrounds out there, equally I am not surprised that they are keeping quiet about it. So would I with so many nutters around.

    It still amazes me that the recent proof of hardy's paradox in laboratory conditions is only known within the realms of obscure physics journals. In days gone by such a thing would be headline news.

    Headline news now seems to be limited to titilation journalism, be it the latest murder, religious war, kidnapping, celebrity boob job or inviting John Prescot to give an opinion on something. News should be useful. So little of what passes for 'news' actually is useful now.

    The BBc should set up an 'alternative news show' which strips out all that c***, it would only be about 10 minutes long most days, and occasionaly much longer.

  • Comment number 13.


    'A friend of mine did a 6 year study into near death experiences within a clinical environment and she is convinced that we are on the verge of some new understanding of ourselves and our place in the Universe.'

    She is right. Our place in the universe will soon be like that of the full stop at the end of this sentence

  • Comment number 14.


    Love the full stop analogy - self inflicted and unnoticed thereafter.

    As far as I know, no one has 'come back to life' and said that, while floating near the ceiling, they read the otherwise unreadable text.

    Derren Brown perhaps?


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