On Friday we had the cricket lunch reunion of a successful Trinity College Dublin 1st X1 cricket team, in a wine bar near Russell Square. About 30 met, mostly cricketers but also a number of their wives – all friends of many years, sharing a lot of fun memories. Lunch and chat lingered until early evening.
Then a quick cab to son Nick, who had cooked a delicious supper for his sister, two of his cousins (our nephews) and their wife/girlfriend, John and me: a lovely family occasion. Then only a few hours to wait before the much-anticipated but up until then unrevealed Saturday theatre engagement…Jerusalem, at the Apollo.
Shaftesbury Avenue was seething with theatre goers and Halloween revellers, the latter all with whitened faces, ghoulish fangs and weird outfits which helped add to the sense of unreality and confusion which faced us as we sat in the Apollo Theatre and watched Jerusalem. Even the name Jerusalem is confusing. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem is not the holy one, the ancient focus for so many conflicting claims and hopes; his is apparently the Jerusalem of William Blake, the WI and many a rousing funeral, but actually it isn’t…
Right at the beginning we realise the play is far from a comforting take on the rural idyll of England’s green and pleasant land. Phaedra, a shy young ‘maiden’, appears in front and sings Jerusalem the Golden rather uncertainly. Behind her, unbeknownst to her, through the curtain (a rather tattered and tired St. George’s cross) one can see a red light flickering. Before she has finished there is an enormous explosion, the curtain goes up to ear- splitting music as a motley group dance in a wonderfully frenzied fashion in front of a battered old motor van in a leafy glade, and we are away.
The shocks and surprises continue, in a wonderfully intriguing and entertaining description of what has been called ‘the modern Battle of Britain’ to decide the kind of England we are going to be living in in the future. The central character in this battle, Byron, is played with unbelievable panache by Mark Rylance (if anyone deserves an Oscar I am sure he does). To the ‘haves’ he is a disreputable and amoral gypsy, a threat to be obliterated from their more comfortable lives and plans for a new housing estate which happens to be where his caravan inconveniently is; to the ‘have nots’ – as we in the audience (tickets £50 a time) miraculously have become – he is the champion, the charismatic and almost entirely convincing ‘have not’ fighting authority in all its forms (angry fathers, bitter partners, the council…).
On his side are hangers on and potential misfits all, from unconfident students to an unhappy Morris dancer to a muddled professor; they all, usually but not always intentionally, enjoy his supply of drugs and wonderfully entertaining ‘true’ stories all of which help them escape from the reality of their dreary and depressing lives.
But the play itself is far from dreary and depressing, and Mark Rylance as Byron is quite upliftingly impressive as he entertains and transports the audience for nearly three hours. It is not for the faint-hearted (no one can utter a sentence without swearing copiously). It is not poetic although I suppose someone could argue that this is the stuff of future myths and legends: the haves and the have nots, the Davids and Goliath… All strangely prophetic (or maybe, worryingly, more factual than prophetic) as was Alan Ayckbourn’e Neighbourhood Watch which we saw in Scarborough last month, anticipating later events which do little to confirm the comfortable myth of ‘Jerusalem the Golden’. But as we picked our way through the Halloween revellers we all returned home glowing with the sense of having witnessed something very special in the theatre.
Thank you, Nick and Ruthie, for your birthday treat for your papa, which we all were able to enjoy so much!