Theatre has a way of etching itself on you and making it a part of your life. The power of theatre is not just mysterious and unexplained but also a wonder of how words, movement, speech, light and sound can move you to feeling something deeper. When theatre resonates with an audience in this way it becomes too powerful to ignore.
With Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s Olivier and Tony Award-winning play, something else is created that doesn’t just resonate with you as an audience but it forges a deep connection to your own sense of self, justice and community.
When Jerusalem returned to the West End in 2011 after its run on Broadway it was during the infamous Dale Farm Evictions. The eviction of a traveller community in Basildon gained global press publicity and once again highlighted the issues the Traveller Community in the UK faced. This community fought for years against their eviction and remained resolute in their determination to not be thrown off their land, homes and community.
And Jerusalem now is as steeped in the politics, social, community and news as it was back in 2011. On Wednesday an occupation camp set up mainly by students at Plaza Universitat was dismantled by Guàrdia Urbana in Barcelona and comes after many weeks of social and political unrest in response to the Catalonia Political Prisoners.
"Arquillué brilliantly conveys that weight as he walks across the stage and though he may be somewhat resigned to his fate..."
The public outcry, as well as the political and social issues at the time helped to make Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron instantly understandable and relatable. He is a Peter Pan like character and his caravan in the middle of the woods is ‘Neverland’ and much like ‘Neverland’ it’s become a safe haven for all ‘Friends! Outcasts. Leeches. Undesirables.' This is what makes Jerusalem, seen through the eyes of the social and political of the time, have such a profoundly powerful message.
Any doubts that I had heading into the production (and I had very few) where subsided the moment Pere Arquillué, Johnny “Rooster” Byron, appeared on stage. Arquillué embodies the life, truth, decency and mystique of Johnny “Rooster” Byron. One feels the weight on Johnny’s shoulders and Arquillué brilliantly conveys that weight as he walks across the stage and though he may be resigned to his fate, there is determination in every step he makes.
Throughout this scene director Julio Manrique creates a foreboding feeling that will play out later.
Arquillué excels as Byron and embodies the character with true authenticity of this complex, disillusioned, determined man. Once Arquillué steps out of the trailer there is a look, a look of a man who feels deflated, that allows the audience to really connect to the pain Byron is now living through. As Byron confidently stumbles around the stage in the early morning light this feeling of powerlessness is overwhelming and though there seems to be a general air of Byron’s usual carefreeness one can not escape this feeling of impending doom. Byron is above all stubborn. He is a man who has built a life that is his own and is hell bent on ensuring that he maintains this life at all cost.
Julio Manrique allows the opening scene with Byron to stretch out in a way that creates a voyeuristic view of Byron's life. The piece of land in the forrest is a tip, it’s disgustingly messy, dirty and unsightly and with Byron walking around his makeshift camp a curiosity of sorts is created of a man who has tasted what true freedom is.
From the start of Jerusalem playwright Jez Butterworth’ use of religion, mysticism, poetry and history to create a story that unfolds like an unconventional fable. William Blake’s ‘And did those feet in ancient times’ opens the play, beautifully sung by Elena Tarrats, Fedra, in the form of a prologue that beautiful lays down the heart and soul of this play.
The use of St. George Day (a Saint who was sentenced to death for refusing to recant his Christian Faith), William Blake and Byron’s own tall tales Butterworth elicits a remarkable story of hope in the face of unlikely odds. Byron represents the oppressed, the outcasts of society, the powerful of heart and spirit but weak of political influence and power. Arquillué taps into the soul of a man who has seen it all from his campsite and has resigned himself to his position.
Director Julio Manrique has created some little touches through lighting, Jaume Ventura, sound, Damien Bazin, and movement, Nathalie Labiano that give the play much more depth and continues the sense of authenticity which makes this production of Jerusalem really stand out. The company have also been served well by Manrique and translator Cristina Genebat who have connected to the text which has allowed the company to understand these complex characters in such a unique way.
Byron, Ginger, Marc Rodríguez, Lee, Adrián Grösser, Davey, Guillem Balart, The Professor, Víctor Pi, Wesley, Albert Ribalta, Pea, Anna Castells and Tanya, Clara de Ramon are all based on real people. These are not just ‘characters’ but people who live and who feel a sense of repetitive hopelessness due to their lives, place and community. This feeling they have is exacerbated by the lack of political worth which only increases this repetitive hopelessness they face.
Rodríguez is a stand out as Ginger, a man-child who has aspiration of becoming a DJ but very little willingness to push himself to achieving it. Both Balart, Davey and Grösser, Lee portray two very similar but different young men trying to figure out their lives. The speech between Lee and Davey in Act Three is heartbreakingly honest and delivered with true conviction by Balart and Grösser.
One of the issues within the text is Butterworth’s lack a sympathy or understanding in how he writes his female characters. They are never as fully rounded as his male characters and tend to be simply ‘there’ rather than having a core purpose within the play. And yet even with this the few women that feature in Jerusalem have depth and are brilliantly realised. Chantal Aimeé, Ms Fawcett/Dawn, conveys a bold nonsense Ms Fawcett which she counters fantastically with a softer somewhat lost Dawn. With Castells, Pea and de Ramon, Tanya, honestly portraying two teenage girls.
In every play there are moments that happen, when new characters are introduced, that can either weaken or strength a play. For Jerusalem the moment Troy Whitworth, David Olivares, walks into Byron’s camp one could feel the oxygen been sucked out from the stage. Troy has been alluded to from the start but the audience never get the whole picture until Olivares walks onto the stage. In this moment we collectively feel the fear that Pea, Lee, Davey, Ginger and Fedra feel. Though there are a few moments of anger it is the calmness of how Olivares walks in and starts talking to Byron that scares you. In this moment it is hard for you to look away from the stage which just a moment ago was filled with laughter and silliness. It is an emotionally powerful moment and it is a scene that lingers with you long after it is over. There is a tender moment in this scene between Davey and Byron that greatly illustrates the difficult realisation that Byron has now come to terms with.
Johnny “Rooster” Byron is never someone who gave up or who felt lost. His way of life is his own and that is something that nobody can take away from him. The actions he takes have remarkable similarities with the famous parable I Sent You a Rowboat. From Ms Fawcett, Wesley, Dawn and at the very end Ginger all come to Byron to tell him he has to leave in order to save himself. As Ginger, frightened, scared and concerned for Byron says ‘There’s two dozen  South Wiltshire on Upavon Road. They got shields and batons. They’re tooling up. They got an army…’ we finally understand the gravity of the situation. Yet he refuses to leave.
It’s not hard to respect a man willing to fight for what he believes in and what he believes is right. In his final stand against the the council Byron is firm in his belief that nothing and nobody will take him away from his land and Arquillué shines.
Jerusalem is more than theatre it is about life, it is about people and it is about our own sense of self or power or simply our own sense of freedom. We all feel confined to the trappings of society and it is fear that stops all of us from breaking and living free. Johnny “Rooster” Byron is perhaps the last of his kind, someone willing to fight for what is his but in him there is something more inspiring, hope, safety and no-judgement.