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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.

gog

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.

david

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?

blake

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

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Welcome to the World of ‘Jerusalem’

Jez Pike’s Director’s Blog: Part One

“I never jumped Stonehenge. But I once met a giant that built Stonehenge” – Rooster

The events of Jez Butterworth’s celebrated play take place in a rural enclave of modern Britain; the fictional village of Flintock in the very real, yet somehow still mysterious county of Wiltshire. The plays popularity perhaps owes something to the strange English obsession with the pastoral idyll; a world that still seems to cast a spell over this countries’ inhabitants, despite the fact few of us still live in touch with the landscape of a ‘green and pleasant land’.

 

Wilsthire

In the county of Wiltshire Butterworth has hit on a patch of this land that is rich in history and steeped in myth but without the strong PR of Cornwall or Yorkshire. Butterworth’s born and bred characters are fiercely proud of their Wiltshire homeland. In a brilliantly comic exchange they condemn the demise of BBC Points West for its coverage of stories further afield than Salisbury or Devises. Recalling being affected by the story of an old women being attacked, young abattoir employee Davey reveals that regional pride can be fiercely territorial: “I’m at home, on me own, watching, getting that upset, tearing up, the lot, before I realise it’s some old biddy from Wales. Some Welsh nonsense. Good luck to ‘em. I ain’t never even fucking been there and I never fucking will.”

If the play was set in Yorkshire you might expect the characters to herald their county as superior to all others. Davey’s pride however seems based more on a zealous isolationism than any sense that Wiltshire is best. It is however undoubtedly different. Characters in the play seek escape from it, find refuge in it or feel trapped by it, yet all would agree that their patch of England is unique.

If ever there was an apt place for an itinerant modern-day man of myth like the play’s protagonist Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron to end up, it is Wiltshire. It’s a county where a square peg in the round hold of the modern state might still be allowed to fit. Through the day that the play takes place in it soon becomes apparent however that even here there is little refuge from the hard-edged capitalist culture of 21st century Britain. At 9am in the morning two council officials arrive at Rooster’s caravan to deliver a final eviction notice. The land is needed for the building of a new identikit housing estate. As the St George’s Day Fair hits full swing the local constabulary are already tooling up, ready for the inevitable confrontation. By roughly half five in the afternoon, moments before the plays haunting final image (and sound), Rooster’s foothold on his patch of this ‘sceptred isle’ is fragile in the extreme.

Wiltshire map

                   Wiltshire.

Stonehenge

    A corner of Avebury standing stones, the largest stone circle in Britain

Butterworth’s knowledge of Wiltshire is based on far more than a few field trips with a notebook. A writer who imbues his plays with a rich visceral energy, he lived in Wiltshire in the years leading up to the writing of Jerusalem and drew heavily on his experience of its landscape, the villages and their inhabitants. The fictional village of Flintock is actually based on Pewsey which Butterworth lived close to and in whose pubs he drank. The pub names appear in the play itself; The Royal Oak, The Phoenix Arms, The Moonraker’s and The Coopers of which the character of Wesley is the landlord, and from which  ‘Rooster’ has been banned the night before for, among many other things, picking up ‘Bob Dance’s pug and simulating a lewd act.’

Peswey is a large village located in the Vale of Pewsey, about 6 miles south of Marlborough and 80 miles west of London. The vale is included in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, an area not dissimilar to the territory of the historic kingdom of Wessex, the flag of which – a golden Wyvern – flutters above Rooster’s caravan.

White horse 

The white horse of Alton Barnes, within the Vale of Pewsey

Butterworth’s Flintock undoubtedly has bucolic features, yet his version of an English village is a realistic mish-mash of rural tradition and contemporary tat. The annual village fair has a tombola and a ‘throw a sponge at the lady vicar’ competition, yet it also contains a massage tent inhabited by the formidable sounding Pat Canon ‘smoking a lambert and butler’. This clash is typical of Butterworth’s evocative yet unsentimental vision of England and Englishness.  In an article for The Guardian published in 2011 and referencing the original production starring Mark Rylance, Laura Barton wrote:

‘Butterworth’s England is simultaneously whimsical and robust. It is the country we recognise, scruffed right up against that dreamy, idealised place of popular imagination – that scepter’d, green, and pleasant land, stewed with an island that is squat and gristly and fierce in a great mingling of giants, William Blake, pet tortoises, morris dancing, bacon barms and Girls Aloud. It’s bus stop-drinking, wet sponge-throwing, new estates, over-zealous district councils; but also those deep, dark leaves that canopy the stage, the rich earth on Rylance’s hands, the faint scent of woodsmoke and mulch that drifts across the theatre. It’s the cool, crisp voice of Phaedra singing Jerusalem, of course, but it’s also the hedonism and debauchery of fair day, the drugs, the drink, the mobile disco. And every bit as much as all of that, it is Rooster pouring the milk in first when he makes a cup of tea.’

(https://www.theguardian.com/stage/theatreblog/2011/oct/25/why-i-love-butterworths-jerusalem)

The extraordinary character of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron also owes much to Butterworth’s time in Pewsey, in particular his time spent people-watching at the bar of The Moonraker’s. Here he met Mickey Lay a local character and former builder who would boast of once drinking 43 pints of Guinness in one afternoon. Like Rooster in the play, Lay spent time living in a caravan “shooting rabbits on the railway track”.

Butterworth became one of a group of regulars who would refer to Lay as ‘gramps’ and listen wide-eyed to the barfly’s stories, relayed in his distinctively rhythmed Wiltshire accent. When the playwright was developing the play with director Ian Rickson, actor Mark Rylance was sent down to Pewsey to visit the inspiration for his character in the flesh. The first meeting didn’t go well. Rylance got the kind of reception that the Kennet & Avon council officials in the play are used to getting from Rooster; a brusque “fuck off”. Lay however was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. When Rylance returned a week later with a bottle of whiskey, Lay let him in and was only too happy to share tall tales and provide inspiration for Rylance’s performance.

 

mickey lay

Mickey Lay holding Mark Rylance’s Tony Award.

Lay enjoyed the resulting publicity after Jerusalem became an international hit, attending premiers at which he remained true to his word – “I love misbehaving” – by drinking anything that was going, even to the extent of drunkenly falling backwards down the stairs of the West End theatre mid-conversation with Rylance. The Oliver award-winning actor later recalled how Lay bounced straight back up, continued talking as if nothing had happened, and of course never spilled a drop of his drink. With delicious irony, Lay missed celebrating the most glitzy premiere of Jerusalem, that of its Broadway opening. You might have expected him to be raising a glass in the Moonraker’s. Only, in a bizarre instance of life imitating art, he had in true Rooster fashion been barred from his local.

 

lay again

Mickey Lay outside his local, The Moonrakers in Pewsey.

Lay sadly died in 2014 at the age of 73. He’d been allowed back in to the Moonraker’s, and was sitting on a bench waiting for the pub to open when he passed away. Like Rooster, he wasn’t a man without his flaws. Rylance has described how when on form he could be ‘charming’, and yet when drunk could be ‘very, very difficult’. He was what we often euphemistically refer to as ‘a character’, who had found a patch of earth in which he was allowed to be himself and for which he had a deep affinity. “I worked out a while ago that Wiltshire air is the purest,” Lay said. “Trees make oxygen and we are between two forests here.” In a moment of a tenderness in the 3rd act of the play, bolshie abattoir worker Davey turns to his friend Lee, who is on the verge of emigrating to Australia and says “Just Breathe that in. That’s it. Right there. One last time”.

All quotes are from the following articles about Mickey Lay.

To read them in full click here: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2011/jun/19/jerusalem-micky-lay-rebel-behind-role-that-wowed-broadway

and

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/news/micky-lay-the-real-life-rebel-behind-stage-hit-jerusalem-dies-aged-73-9032989.html

Next time on this blog: The rich tapestry of mythology in the play and dispatches from the Maddermarket rehearsal room.