[Note: this is a diary, not an essay. Any conclusions reached on one day are often overturned on the next.]
5 February 2013
This play is event theatre. Professional critics gave it five-star reviews, returned to see if it was as good the second and third time as it was the first – they decided it was – and, as one of them wrote after his second visit, ‘Sometimes criticism must fall silent and give way to joyous celebration.’ With a ‘towering’ performance by Mark Rylance at its centre, it became an instant national treasure, like Stonehenge or the other fragments of Englishness that litter Jez Butterworth’s script. Questions about what Butterworth’s point might be simply don’t arise when we’ve got Rylance before us: ‘Watching him is like watching a great jazz musician hitting an amazing streak of improvisation.’ Man, you needed to be there.
I’ll come clean. I wasn’t there. So I read the play and, yesterday, was able to see an archive film of a performance from 2011. Afterwards I gave a lift to the woman from the V&A who brought the DVD to the school where it was being shown to A level students, and she told of how she queued for 24 hours to get a ticket. Mark Rylance came to see those in the queue and was charming.
What I saw yesterday made it clear why people put their critical faculties on hold. Mark Rylance is extraordinary, and by the end of the play there’s a sense of having witnessed something almost literally stunning…. He struts and frets his hour upon the stage – more strutting than fretting, until near the end – and we watch and marvel. The world of Jerusalem is a glorious bubble where council eviction orders can be ignored and if the police try anything, well, Johnny’s own army of mythical heroes going back millennia will join him to stop them. Their names become Johnny’s final defiant cry against the forces of conformity – Jack-of-Green, Jack-in-Irons, Thunderdell and the rest – accompanied by his relentless beating of the drum. ‘Faster. Faster. Staring out. He pounds on and on…’ to Blackout. This is what we’re left with, not the eviction we thought was inevitable. Take it or leave it.
We take it, of course, because it’s glorious. Noise – klaxons, megaphones, drums – are a big part of Johnny’s stage persona, and that’s what’s ringing in our ears at the end. The bubble doesn’t burst. Wherever we might be going after the performance, on the Tube or in the car to where we live – almost certainly not in a caravan in the woods – we can remember Rooster ‘proud and disdainful… the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last.’
That last quotation isn’t from Jerusalem, it’s the final line in ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’. Like James Thurber who wrote that story, Jez Butterworth allows his flawed, defeated main character a heroic end. We’ve been in Johnny’s world for three hours, and he’s made it work for us through his endless self-mythologising and the bravura performance of the lead actor. Butterworth plays on our need for heroes: maybe there’s a Walter Mitty in all of us, imagining a life where we don’t have to do all that conforming stuff. We need Johnny, and I haven’t read a single bad review.
But a play isn’t a jazz performance. The text of his play is now on the A level syllabus and, like me, people the age of Johnny Byron’s hangers-on are going to be looking for what it might possibly mean. When I’d only read Act 1 I started to write about it. Is the main character, I asked, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron or England itself? Why name a play about an awkward, lovable, self-serving anti-hero after the only hymn anyone knows about England, favourite of crowds and the Women’s Institute, and open it with a solo rendition of its first verse, sung directly to the audience? Very early on we’re wondering if Butterworth wants us to take Johnny to represent England in some way….
Butterworth has emptied out a rattle-bag of Englishness over his script. The opening words, there for the reader if not the audience, are ‘England at midnight. A clearing in a midnight wood.’ It’s Shakespeare’s England, the Forest of Arden. And it’s taking place on Shakespeare’s birthday, which is also St George’s Day. Before the end of Act 1 we’ve had Old – or ‘Olde’ – England in spades. But none of it has survived intact. The fair and morris dancers are sponsored by the local brewery, and have become a money-making opportunity. The supposedly traditional cake, opened with the ‘barley-sword’, is full of bottles of brands of booze that aren’t selling. At the end of one of the songs about the fair comes a parody of it, ending in the line ‘It’s shit, but you love it.’
Whatever else he’s doing – and I’m not at all sure that this is connected with the character of Johnny – Jez Butterworth is offering us a slyly satirical take on what England is like now. The sylvan idyll is spoiled by Johnny’s caravan and the detritus surrounding it. And the rural England that would be recognised by Shakespeare and his contemporaries is overlaid with all the ugly signs of modernity you could possibly think of, with the housing estate about to encroach even further. It’s no surprise at all that while we get a minute-long riff from one of the hangers-on about why he’s never been out of Wiltshire – he’s being sarcastic – another character has a one-way ticket to Australia and is leaving next day.
Most of Act 1 seems straightforwardly comic, with a parade of no-hopers and set-piece turns like the pub landlord who’s been forced by the brewery into being a morris dancer. Johnny himself comes from a line of comic monsters we know from English television. From Alf Garnett to Jim in The Royle Family and Frank Gallagher in Shameless, opinionated, self-centred men have never tired of exasperating everybody around them. At the very beginning, once past the singing of ‘Jerusalem’, we seem to be in an English sitcom. Two comic jobsworths want to serve Johnny with a notice of eviction, and he’s having nothing to do with it. His props are as comic as the officials – his head, complete with flying helmet, pokes from the top of the caravan as though from a tank, he carries a klaxon and megaphone…. It’s a comic take on the Spirit of the Blitz of post-war English mythology, but this is Johnny’s own war. Soon he’s telling the officials, and anyone else who’s listening, how he’s run rings around them for years and he isn’t going to stop now. And we’re bound to be on his side because, well, just look at the enemy. It’s knockabout stuff.
As the play goes on, the mythology surrounding Johnny puts him on a pedestal alongside other myths. It can’t be done without a (typically English) sting in the tail but, says one hanger-on, he should have his own statue, with his arm around King Arthur and a ‘great spliff on the go’, to ‘Wiltshire’s Biggest Bullshitter’. He’s the man who can ride his stunt-bike over thirteen double-deckers, be pronounced dead, then stroll over to the beer tent and order himself a pint. Later he tells of the 90-foot giant he spoke to next to the A14 who built Stonehenge. (Does it matter that the A14 doesn’t go anywhere near Wiltshire? Don’t ask me.)
I’m back with those early questions. From the first minute I was wondering, What’s this writer saying? What’s with all this Englishness stuff? Is the comedy only there to draw us into something more thoughtful…? Does Johnny represent some aspects of Englishness we’re in danger of losing? And if so, what? A wish not to conform? To be bloody-minded? After all, he isn’t doing any harm – it’s only those conformist pigs in the housing estate who want to hound him out, isn’t it?
Well, maybe. But what about the play as a drama? I’ve mentioned the parade of no-hopers in Act 1, but there’s not much drama going on there. There’s the threat of eviction to kick-start the whole play. There’s Ginger straight afterwards, fed up that Johnny made no attempt to contact him about the previous night’s party. (Johnny blows away the tension with a comic riff about his space being invaded by Girls Aloud, so that’s all right.) And… we might wonder if Lee will manage to get the bus to the airport and a new life in Australia tomorrow, but we’re not really bothered. There’s one other question left hanging: where’s Phaedra, the Queen of last year’s May? And I think that’s it for Act 1.
Act 2 brings some new characters. Johnny has an ex-wife, and a son. Can he look after the boy? No, because the eviction is really going to happen and he has an army to knock into shape. (As if.) And there’s a different father, Troy. He’s looking for Phaedra, and he’s sure Johnny knows where she is. He’s a nasty piece of work, calls Johnny names that refer – it’s the first hint we’ve had – to his Romany background. In return, Johnny taunts Troy about wanting sex with the girl, who isn’t his daughter at all according to one of the girls onstage. He describes how he talked last year: ‘I got the Queen of Flintock under my roof’ and of how hard it must be to sleep with her in the next room. ‘She in your dreams, boy?’ And then Johnny does what he does to everybody, reminds him of when he used to come up to the woods, and of that evening when Troy saw something magical – there was wine involved – that terrified him.
It gets nastier because by now, two thirds of the way through the play, things aren’t going well for Johnny. Troy retaliates with a horrible tale of how Johnny, too drunk to make it home, was treated by his so-called friends the previous year. ‘You’d pissed yourself…. And do you know what they done? They pissed on you too. All overs you.’ And they captured it on their phones, something that sounds true because we’ve already seen it in Act 1: Davey likes filming Johnny’s self-destructive acts. Johnny can do nothing but turn and walk off. Ah. And when everyone else has gone except the mad professor – did I mention him? – Phaedra comes out of the caravan. According to the stage directions: ‘Shaking. Trembling. Shallow breathing. Suddenly it stops. She holds her breath and we… [next line] Blackout.’
…and then we what? Wonder what she’s doing there? Assume that it’s Troy who’s made her tremble like that? Is he the reason she’s hiding?
In Act 3 it’s Johnny against the world. By the end of Act 2 he realised that the hangers-on were only messing about when they pretended they would help him, and this is confirmed when two of them arrive in the afternoon. Later the council officers come back to tell him that he’s had his last chance. After that the rest of the play is like a valediction as he says goodbye to different parts of his life. First Phaedra appears again and, as though to confirm that it isn’t Johnny who abuses her, she dances with him. Troy comes back with reinforcements and, out of view, they beat him up and brand an X on each of his cheeks. Next is the ever-loyal Ginger, wanting to help. Johnny has to be brutal: ‘Listen very carefully…. We’re not friends…. Now get. You and all these rats.’ Ginger, poor gullible Ginger, believes him and comes out with the worst thing he can think of, from stock: ‘Once a….’
Which leaves Marky, his son. All Johnny can leave for him is his heritage, his Romany blood. (That’s the third mention of it – Phaedra called him, in a friendly sort of way, a gyppo.) It’s rare enough, he tells the boy, for him to sell it to the NHS for £600 a pint, every six weeks. And, even better – he really believes this – he’s a Byron. He outlines his creed – ‘School is a lie’ and the rest – checks the boy’s teeth – ‘You’ll be all right.’ – and he’s on his own. There’s a fine, sixteen-line curse which he intones as he pours petrol inside and outside the caravan. There’s a list of all the Byrons, going back who knows how many generations. And he enlists all those gods, giants and spirits to help him stay defiant as he beats the drum to Blackout.
What I’m saying is, not a lot goes on dramatically beyond people coming on and interacting with or talking about Johnny. It’s the nearest a play with a cast of fourteen can come to a one-man show, with everything depending on Johnny: what he says and does, and what others say about him. There’s other stuff, offering tangential and, the more I think about it, random-seeming insights into life in England, but really it’s all about him. And I think I’ve worked out at last why it doesn’t seem enough. This play has all the features – I’ve hardly stopped banging on about them – of a state of England play. It has a towering central character, whose own mythology borrows unashamedly from the mythology of England. So, whether Butterworth intends it or not, Johnny represents England.
Except it doesn’t work at any rational level. Is he a marginalised white working class? Nope. There may be a play to be written about their experience, but this isn’t it. Does he represent a kind of anglicised Romany experience? Nope. Aside from the three references I’ve mentioned, which come so late in the play they feel like an afterthought, there is nothing about Johnny that tallies with any Romany or Traveller experience you could name: no extended family, no Romany culture separate from the English tradition he is so fond of hijacking, nothing. Is he the last bastion standing against the tidal wave of mediocrity and conformity we see and hear so much of in the play? If he is, he’s a highly problematic representative. His own rubbish is as much of a blot on the landscape as anybody else’s, and all his anti-conformity is based on his own pleasure – the mantra he purrs to his son just before he leaves: ‘Grab your fill…. Lie Cheat. Steal.’
He might pretend otherwise, but he represents nothing and nobody but himself. Listen to him and he’s a necessary safety-valve for the local community. The people who sign the petition against him used to come to his wood or, in the case of the women, have received sexual favours from him. Young people come to him because the alternative is the bus-shelter – and see how he looked after Phaedra. It’s nonsense. He might want to save Phaedra but he can’t in the end because he’s on the road to self-destruction and he can’t even save himself. The previous night, during one of his ever more frequent blackouts – caught lovingly by Davey – it was his television. Tonight it’s everything, probably including himself.
A sad loss? Of course – but whatever Butterworth puts in Johnny’s mouth, it doesn’t represent the end of a way of life, or any vibrant strand of Englishness. In the end it comes down to just one tired, middle-aged man who’s been good at self-promotion but who’s finally run out of words. Better bang that drum.
Nope, that doesn’t work. I can’t pretend Johnny is a self-deluding Walter Mitty because there’s too much truth in what he says, and he really is brave. Butterworth has made him, through tales of derring-do, the hero-worship of his hangers-on, and his presentation of himself as somehow sharing the greatness of England, as a force to be reckoned with. The drama is the confrontation of this force, a kind of life-force that until now had always seemed unstoppable, with forces that are out to crush it. Butterworth deliberately presents the council employees as a joke to begin with – comic jobsworths I called them – to lull the audience, and Johnny, into a false sense of security. In fact they have all the force of the State behind them, as becomes clear in Act 3. And then there’s Troy, representing something even more disturbing, determined to crush something in Johnny he finds terrifying.
I can’t believe I missed this, because together these two forces deal Johnny a series of hammer-blows during Act 3. They follow on directly from the one that Troy delivers at the end of Act 2, and he can’t survive them. The council officers’ second visit is not quite a repetition of the first, despite the comedy. Just before they arrive Wesley, the pub landlord, is in crisis. He’s recognised – presumably through his time with Johnny that day – that his life is pointless and terminally dull. Despite Johnny’s best efforts – they seem genuine – to discourage Wesley to get back to his pub and his wife, he wants to throw it all up and spend more time with Johnny: ‘I’m going up Orr Hill. Watch the trains. You wanna come?’ I mention this because as soon as the officers arrive they seem to cast a magical spell of conformity. ‘Right. I better be getting back. I got a busy night ahead. Anyways, the long and short of it is, you’re barred, mate…’ and so on.
The scene between Johnny and the officers is, at one level, a return to the knockabout stuff of Act 1. But in response to Johnny’s question, ‘Who says?’ comes the reply: ‘The law. The English Law.’ And we know he’s lost. Anything after this, the way Johnny has of puncturing hypocrisy (he alludes to the affair one of the officers is having and to the kickbacks that will no doubt be paid for the contracts) and his defiant speeches to the digital camera recording all this, are just words.
Butterworth likes to remind us that with him, something else is going too. The professor arrives and, like several characters before, sniffs the air. It’s the wild garlic, Johnny tells him – and doesn’t tell him that it won’t be there after the place is all houses. This playwright is absolutely determined that we associate the passing of Johnny with the passing of some aspect of England that we’ll miss when it’s gone.
But I was talking about valedictions and hammer-blows. The scene with Troy and his two thugs I’ve already mentioned, but not what Butterworth makes it represent. Troy is another force for conformity, but Butterworth has made him far more disturbing than the council officers. (There’s never any comedy when Troy is onstage.) That earlier scene, in which Johnny reminded Troy of how terrified he was all those years ago, shows Troy to be the worst kind of hypocrite. Johnny’s magic – it really is presented like this – showed Troy something in himself he didn’t want to see. ‘We poured a glass of wine into a plate, a silver plate, like a blood-red mirror and you took the candle and you gazed into the mirror. (Beat.) You shook like a leaf. Couldn’t stop shaking. Couldn’t speak. You were terrified, boy.’ And from then on, Troy never came back. Whoo. We know about the threat this man poses to Phaedra because Johnny has made it explicit. He has to crush the man who brings him such news about himself.
Does it sound far-fetched? Butterworth is blurring the line between Johnny the boozy drug-dealer and Johnny the shaman with Dionysian knobs on. Could it be that it isn’t only talk? Whatever, it’s followed by the scene with Ginger, there to tell him that the danger is real. ‘They got shields and batons. They tooling up. They got an army.’ And Johnny does what he did with Wesley, tells him to get out of there. It’s important – perhaps it’s because that’s what shamans have to do – that he goes into his last scene alone.
This brings a whole other dimension to the final scene of drumming. It isn’t just defiance, it’s an incantation. Johnny, covered in the blood worth £600 every six weeks – and what’s with the sixes? – enlists his ancestors and all the spirits of England in a chant that rises to a climax that is utterly compelling. ‘Come, you battalions. You fields of ghosts who walk these green plains still. Come, you giants!’ Butterworth uses all the poetical skill at his disposal – literary and mythological allusion, alliteration, even iambic pentameter in that ‘fields of ghosts’ sentence – to make every one of us believe that this spell might just work.
Am I more confused than ever about this play? I wrote yesterday that it doesn’t work at a rational level – Johnny seems to have no identifiable connection to the lives of real English people, and his world is entirely male and white – but that’s not the level that Butterworth is interested in. Through hints of magical powers and gypsy blood he nudges and coerces us into believing that there’s more to Johnny than the clapped-out wreck he might appear, and that we’re all diminished by his loss. So, however much one part of us might want to protest, another part wants the ending that Butterworth gives us. I’ve said it before, but as we make our way to our safe, conformist homes it’s good to have his war-cry ringing in our ears. That’s what drama does: takes us somewhere we can’t go on our own, then lets us get on with our harmless lives.