‘And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?’
The play’s title, of course, is a nod to Blake’s 1808 poem but it becomes a hymn of identity and nationhood and belonging, set in a fictional Wiltshire village on St George’s Day. The tune is the most chosen in Britain at both weddings and funeral.
On one level, the plot is simple: the story of Johnny Byron’s last stand against the philistines who would evict him from his home is set largely within a period of 24 hours.
The start is explosive. A solo rendering of William Blake’s Jerusalem by Phaedra (a missing 15 year old) front of curtain crashes into the noise of the rave at Johnny’s the night before the story starts.
This is a singularly original production directed by Ian Rickson. Mark Rylance’s as Johnny “Rooster” Byron is a tour de force and certainly mad, bad and dangerous to know. Rooster is a self styled wild gypsy and former motorcycle n Evel Knievel-like daredevil stunt-rider who attracts Wiltshire village kids to his mobile home in the woods for wild drug and alcohol fuelled parties. Throughout, Rooster is a toxic concoction of Falstaff, Pied Piperand Fagin; his language borders on poetic:Byronic. The strong supporting cast adds to the peppery dialogue which regularly cues laughter alongside insightful classic monologues of self-perception.
Rooster is full of mythical stories regarded with both doubt and reverence by the kids apt since Blake’s poem was inspired by the apocryphal myth that Jesus visited England during his days on Earth.
Jessica Courtney’s set design frames our consciousness – a large square of turf is covered with the detritus of a party (plastic cups, beer bottles, condoms), and a tattered caravan sits behind, surrounded by trees. The drop curtain is painted with the red cross of St. George, the flag of medieval England, all adding weight to Johnny’s sense of Englishness but the mind-set of its characters is definitely British provincial.
The play moves swiftly from high comedy to tragedy; it is funny and sad, tender then terrifyingly violent. Amidst all this, 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.
‘Friends! Outcasts. Leeches. Undesirables ,a blessing on you, and upon this beggars’ banquet. This day we draw a line in the chalk, and push back hard against the bastard pitiless busybody council, and drive them from this place for ever’
Critics such as Libby Purves and Andrew Marr have remarked on the prophetic features of the play. In its portrayal of the current economy and a lower middle class which increasingly perceives itself as disenfranchised, it hints at the sell-off of the English countryside ‘via contracts and kickbacks’ (Purves 2011) as much as it seems to have anticipated the 2011 ‘London Riots’.
Without doubt, it is respect for the old England of folk tales and rural mystery, and a lament for the housing estates and petty officialdom that are screwing it up. It is a defiant celebration of freedom.