In the footsteps of giants: a trippy journey into Butterworth’s mythical world

Jez Pike’s Director’s Blog: Part Two

 

‘And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?’

The opening line of the hymn Jerusalem – that uneasy marriage between the uncertain metaphysical musings of William Blake’s poem and the Victorian chest-thumping melody of Hubert Parry – refers to a young Jesus Christ.

Blake’s lyrics are inspired by the apocryphal story that a youthful Son of God, accompanied by a tin merchant by the name of Joseph of Arimathea travelled to a place called Glastonbury in land now called England. The feet of the hymn are therefore those of Christ. Yet, in the context of Butterworth’s mythical tapestry – a colourful piece of weaving using material begged, borrowed and stolen – the feet might also be interpreted as belonging to those of a giant.

Christianity and giants have a surprisingly chummy history. Gog and Magog, two such creatures summoned among many by Rooster Byron at the plays climax first appear in the Book of Ezekial. Across Judeo-Christian mythology they are regarded both as protectors (specifically aligned with the city of London) and harbingers of doom who’s appearance will actually signal the end of the world. In keeping with all giants throughout mythology, whilst one’s precise attitude to the presence of Gog and Magog turning up might depend on whose side you were on, no one would mistake their temperaments for that of Roald Dahl’s ‘Big’ ‘Friendly’ incarnation. If these two turn up on your doorstep, destructive force is guaranteed and collateral damage inevitable.

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Gog and Magog dining out on some humans

You’ll have to see the play and make your own mind up as to the hopefulness of Rooster’s future, but the fact that his Giants address list includes such figures of anarchy says rather a lot. What’s even more intriguing is that Gog and Magog also happen to be the name given to two trees that stand in Glastonbury, the site perhaps most associated in our minds with an uncertain entity called Albion. Part place, part time, part concept Albion obsessed Blake, was later appropriated for Empire and has subsequently been reclaimed by modern-day pagans as a kind of wellspring for a primitivst vision of the past.

tree form

Gog and Magog in their tree form. They are collectively known as ‘The Oaks of Albion’

It is this past that Butterworth has recently re-imagined on the small screen in the form of Britannia, his recent Sky series which takes place during the successful, second invasion of Britain by the Romans. Mackenzie Crook, who first played a Butterworth role in the original Jerusalem production, dons impressive prosthetics and dodgy teeth to be Veran, the chief Druid who holds untold power within a land of ritual, sacrifice and (if the writer’s unashamedly creative interpretation of events is to believed) copious amounts of drug-taking.

The drugs, as in Jerusalem, have a greater purpose than mere enjoyment however. They are the keys that open gateways to greater understanding, often in relationship to nature. In an interview with the Independent, Butterworth remarked “I think most drug experiences take you back to the land – certainly hallucinogenic drug experiences. I remember the first few times I took mushrooms, I saw a lot of images that I recognised from cultures from a long time ago.”

In Jerusalem, an elderly character named ‘Professor’, played at The Maddermarket by Norwich Players stalwart David Newham, goes on his own hallucinogenic trip, to a place of ‘outstretched green hands’, of ‘a million tiny green fingers’ where ‘an army of spiders were building a webbed citadel’. Far from being a hazy moment for the professor, this drug-induced vision is actually one of extraordinary clarity. It enables him to face a truth, hitherto eluding him, regarding a loss in his life. This moment of revelation is one of the most tender and unexpected scenes in the play.

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Actor David Newham in rehearsal

Whilst the visions of God that Blake claimed to have had from the age of four were, according to his own interpretation purely spiritual in origin – in the Christian mystic tradition that includes Julian of Norwich – fellow myth merchants like Byron and Coleridge took full advantage of psychoactive substances in their quest to tap into this nation’s past. Or rather, a version of it’s past. Not the version defined by Protestant Christian thought, or even earlier Catholicism, but an older, deeper, darker past.

Visions of ‘The Green Man’

This is the past that Rooster Byron summons at the plays climax when he calls for ‘drunken spirits’ ‘battalions’and ‘fields of ghosts’. It is a past that to be perfectly honest is rather hazy. Attempting to look back at it would be rather like attempting to make out faces through a cloud of the Druid Veran’s incense or indeed the thick fog induced by one of Rooster’s generously proportioned joints. Definition would be impossible. The eyes would soon redden, one would need to rub them, resulting only in blur, shape-shifting and tricks of the mind. In place of truth would be illusion, doubt and imagination.

Butterworth’s vision of this country’s Druidic past is such an illusion. In truth the archaeological evidence for the kind of culture that Britannia’s own director has described as ‘bonkers’ is scant. In fact, according to Charlotte Higgins, author of Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, our collective intuition that somehow the origin story of the English might be located in a Druidic past of the kind inhabited by the Merlins and Verans of this world, is largely thanks to Roman propaganda.

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Mackenzie Crook as Veran in Britannia

In Roman parlance, Britain was a byword for ‘remoteness and peculiarity’. Fantastic tails of giant sea creatures and wicker men excused Rome’s initial failing to conquer Britain, and then conversely after this was achieved, gave glory to Rome’s might and reach. It’s ironic, though in the current political climate, perhaps heartening, to discover that even our myths are mongrel to their core, and defined as much by those outside our isles as those within their boundaries.

Butterworth has made no apology for the historical liberties potentially taken in Britannia. This is because he is a writer not interested in history but in myth, or rather the role of myth in defining identity. He understands that myths are truly mongrel in nature and his attitude towards them is that of the scavenger or the beach-comber; raiding here, reclaiming there.

So Jerusalem begins with a line from a hymn which summons a ‘last night of the proms’ definition of national identity, but whose lyrics refer to an apocryphal side note of the Christian story, the opening line of which gains redefinition by the drama that follows it. ‘And did those feet walk upon England’s mountains green?’ Who knows? Perhaps not. Or perhaps they did. Perhaps they leapt. Great Giant leaps, accompanied by roared insults and deep reverberating belly laughs that caused landslides and moved mountains. Is this what Johnny Rooster Byron has in mind at the end of the play? And if it is, will these giants awake?

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Plate 41 with William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion’

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