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New Theatre presents JERUSALEM by Jez Butterworth at the New Theatre, Newtown.

JERUSALEM by Jez Butterworth had its first production at the Royal Court Theatre in 2009, and then transferred to the West End, London, for a season in 2010. The play travelled to New York in 2011 and played an extended season there, before, once again, returning for a further season in the West End that, also, extended into 2012. The critical reception for the play has been overwhelmingly positive in both world theatre centres, London and New York (and simply laudatory for the actor Mark Rylance in the role of Rooster Byron). Five years after the world premiere the New Theatre, a professional/amateur theatre company presents, for the first time, this famous play in Sydney.

Jerusalem is a poem written by William Blake in 1808 and was later adapted to a rousing hymn as part of the patriotic morale bolstering for the English people in the First World War, in 1916 by Sir Hubert Barry. I remember singing it as part of the school choir in 4th and 5th class at our Catholic School in Eastwood in the nineteen fifties – I remember the power of the music and the rousing lyrics viscerally, even today – A Sydney born son, imagination and emotions aflame, singing my heart out in the baritone middling.

And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental flght,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

What about that second verse: Bring me my bow of gold! etc!! Bring me my chariot of fire!

As the play begins, there is a rumble of what seems to be a deep earth quake of some dimension, that shakes the scene into, perhaps, a twilight place of make believe. For soon after, Phaedra (Anna Chase), a run-away 16 year old, hiding out in Rooster Byron’s (Nicholas Eadie) stranded, silver caravan in the woods of Flintock, Wiltshire County, dressed as the Queen-of-the-May – a fairy apparition – appears, and sings the hymn Jerusalem to us. It is the day of the town fair, St George’s feast day (the red cross flag of St George hangs in the surrounds), and here, on the edge of a ‘magic’ wood, Mr Byron holds court, dispensing modern day drugs to all and sundry, who come to his camp site, as refugees from the encroaching and banal real world of the Village/Town Estates and mediocre entertainments of the paltry fair that boasts of Morris Dancing as the great attraction.

Rooster Byron tells them stories of his own personal adventures of yore – Evel Knivel-like exploits of leaping over buses on his motor cycle, and though dying, actually reviving, as we can witness – and as the shaman storyteller of his tribe, dips further, into the Druidical legends and myths of the time of the Giants of Stonehenge and King Arthur, Frodo and Dragons. This mixture of the modern ‘mysteries of legend’ and that of cultural inheritance make up a potent tonic for these survivors of what appears to be a never ending ‘rave’ and gives them the opportunity to exist in a world of relative bliss. Rooster Byron is a Falstaffian figure of corruption and hedonistic heroism, in the final stage of defying the bureaucratic authorities, who with bated bull-dozers are gathering, outside the wood, on the road, to end all this, for what they believe is progress. Rooster claims Gypsy-Romany blood – a unique commodity, in much demand from the outside world, who pay generously, monthly, for it at the local blood bank. Too, he demonstrates magical powers of concentration. He is a ‘strange’ person, indeed. Rooster Byron, a Merlin, a Gandalf, able to create worlds of illusion to relieve the body and feed the soul. Or, is he simply a drugged reprobate of small time criminal intent?

Mr Butterworth, in this old-fashioned literary structure of the three act play, has created an endearing, familiar set of characters and a contemporary lament for lost worlds that seems to cross-over from the culture of ownership, England, to the lives of the Americas (the New York success) and, now here in Australia at the New Theatre. The metaphor of the specific spins easily into universal resonance, for anyone with imagination. The language of Mr Butterworth has all the cogency of a great contemporary storyteller and seems to have found a common fissure to the grief of loss of other more magical times. If it be for you  the Ancient Druids, the American Indian or the Australian Aboriginal, this particular world in JERUSALEM has the power to resonate beyond its localisation, and the characters have the kind of hopeless childishness of recognition, and are equipped with the same weight of human failures that many of us know, either first hand, or second hand.

At the New Theatre, Helen Tonkin with her modestly budgeted design by Tom Bannerman (Set) and Jennifer Post (Costume), lit with some warmth and sensitivity by Blake Garner, has found some 14 actors and welded them to a very convincing collection of human frailties. From young Oliver Shaw (on the night I attended) as Marky, the little boy/son, to the garrulous, Messianic Rooster, played by Mr Eadie, we have a large Dramatis Personae of some real contemporary life observation. Whether in principal responsibility or in support, Mr Butterworth has written characters and scenes that are rewarding for whoever is carrying the responsibility of impersonation. Mr Butterworth writes for actors,  all his actors, and all of these actors reveal the rewarding Butterworth gifts given to them.

Mr Eadie embraces Rooster with considerate ease and seems to be playing him with ensemble reliance – the role is written as bravura opportunity, which Mark Rylance, on report, has inhabited with much physical gusto. Mr Eadie in this production, in his actor choices, is comparatively, less physically engaged, but is internally vivid with the knowledge of the decline and fall of a ‘great’ and undoubtedly intelligent man, which he communicates to us with deft deep breaths of empathetic humanity. Jeremy Waters gives a vigorous and arresting, outstanding, performance as Ginger, the lost; Alex Norton (Davey), Brynn Loosemore (Lee), Pete Nettell (Wesley) and Peter McAllum (the Professor) are sterling and diverse in their contribution – the world of the play holds together in their focused grip. In smaller opportunities, Emma Louise (Dawn) and Luke Carson (Troy) give further depth to the play and its action.

The critical production history of this play tells us that JERUSALEM has the capacity to rise to some significance in the experience of it – some critics regard the play as a contemporary classic. Here in Sydney, at the New Theatre, the achievement is a little more modest in its affect, but it is a production of a play well enough done, and, so, for theatre lovers, is a necessity to acquaint yourself with. It is well worth catching. The quality of the writing and the commitment of this company is outstanding.

Do go.

P.S. It is privilege to have a company like the New Theatre in Sydney. The artistic management seem to have a firm eye on the culture of contemporary International and Australian writing, and when blessed with dedicated artists, often acquit the work with some credit. Caryl Churchill’s TOP GIRLS was a recent pleasure. Plays of importance, ignored by the major companies for presentation, often find their way onto this stage. – and there lies, what I call the privilege for the Sydney audience/avid theatre goers. The company is not always consistent in its quality of work, but, more often is, than not. That the company chose to present and secured the rights to JERUSALEM is certainly a feather in their artistic cap.

Sydney has seen other works by Mr Butterworth: MOJO (1995); THE NIGHT HERON (2002) and PARLOUR SONG  (2008) and I’ve heard the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) will, despite a previous production here, present MOJO next year, an award winning play: the Laurence Olivier Award; an Evening Standard Award and the George Devine Award for 1995 – almost 20 years old with a small cast of 6 men. It is a shame that JERUSALEM was not secured by the STC – JERUSALEM is a very different play to MOJO  and is a huge step forward in skill and literary ambition and achievement for Mr Butterworth.

It is a pity that HUMBLE BOY by Charlotte Jones (2002) has been substituted from the planned season, at the New Theatre, even though it was performed at the Ensemble Theatre a little time ago, for it is a very interesting play using HAMLET, as a parallel reference (see ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD), with Noel Coward’s HAYFEVER. I have smiled at what the Socialist founders of this historic company, the New Theatre, would make of the Coward choice – rolling in their graves , or beds, I imagine – not that I don’t look forward to seeing HAYFEVER. It is certainly a conservative atmosphere we are living through when the New Theatre finds HAYFEVER as the most suitable substitute for the ‘hole’ in their planned season. Then, of course, Belvoir has set an example when it had a go at PRIVATE LIVES last year, as part of the Sydney diet of necessary theatre events. Someone else, has regarded Coward as a necessary for Sydney audiences – if not pragmatically for box office assurances,then clearly for arts sake! Contemporary dramaturgy, however, suggests that in that period of history, Terence Rattigan is the more important and interesting writer: AFTER THE DANCE (1939), for example. Now there’s a play that is a revelation about the writing and politics of Mr Rattigan.