The William Blake Blog

Jez Butterworth’s Sons of Albion
Jez Butterworth's play, Jerusalem, has returned to London a decade after the original performance. This review explores how much the play owes to William Blake.
For at my back is every Byron boy that e’er was born an Englishman. And behind them bay the drunken devil’s army and we are numberless. Rise up! Rise up, Cormoran. Woden. Jack-of-Green. Jack-in-Irons. Thunderfell. Búri, Blunderbore, Gog and Magog, Galligantus, Vili and Vé, Brutus of Albion. Come, you drunken spirits. Come, you battalions. You fields of ghosts who walk these green plains still. Come, you giants!
- Jerusalem, Act Three, p.109.

Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem was first performed at the Royal Court in 2009, starring Mark Rylance as Johnny "Rooster" Byron and Mackenzie Crook as Ginger. Following an extended run at the Apollo Theatre and on Broadway in 2011, it largely disappeared from England's green and pleasant land (or its dark Satanic mills, depending on your point of view). Since then, it has entered into the kind of mythology that Rooster was renowned for spinning in front of his caravan in the woods on the edge of Flintlock, the fictional location in which Jerusalem is set. While there have been performances in Toronto and San Francisco without the involvement of Butterworth, Rylance or Crook, the return of the play to the Apollo represents a return home, although the distance of eleven years since its last performance perhaps shows that the past really is a foreign country.

Plenty of the reviews of this revival have tended to focus on how a "state-of-England" play deals with a country that has gone through Brexit and the Pandemic. Likewise, they have been largely positive - although not completely (Arifa Akbar, for example. writing in The Guardian, points out that the sexism of Byron and his lawless crew does not fit so well in the age of #MeToo). It's also very clear that critics are more than capable of reading what they desire into the drama - whether celebrating the mutinous spirit of the pro-Brexit English as in Dominic Cavendish's 2020 essay for The Telegraph, or lamenting the tragedy of the "Little England nightmare incarnate", as in Andrzej Lukowski's review for Time Out.

For my part I am, unsurprisingly, more interested here in the influence of Blake and also some of those themes that fed Blake's fascination with myth making and the legends of Albion. For the record, Rylance is truly spellbinding as the bard of bullshit, a story-spinning Roma whose task is to weave a glamour in the excrescence (and, as we see, occasional beauty) of his derelict, drug-dealing home in Rooster Wood. He is a whizz-sniffing, alcohol-guzzling Stig of the Dump with an ability to spout the kind of bollocks that is usually attributed to the Irish in the fantastical isles at the edge of The Atlantic, but which is the native gift of many of the motley crew of England as they wait for last orders in the saloon bars and pubs of the nation.

The importance of Blake is well-known, not least from the fact that the title of the play takes its title from Blake's best known poem. Rod Tweedy provides an extensive analysis of Blakean mythical types in the drama at The Human Divine, and there is an excellent, more extensive essay by Simon White on how a Blakean imagination informs Butterworth's rejection of middle-class visions of the land. Both of these make the important point that Blake is both significant to the vision of England that appears throughout the play and yet also operates in the background. This is clearly true - with the hymn "Jerusalem" foregrounding the play as the 15-years-old runaway Queen of the May, Phaedra, sings the opening verses of the song as the play opens, and near the close when Byron triumphantly, tragically calls out Blake's name to answer the one trivial pursuit that - in the end - is anything but trivial. What struck me more forcefully upon seeing the play is how much it draws on a Blakean love of English and British antiquity and mythology, what used to be known as the Matter of Britain, those legends which the programme for the show makes clear are very important to Butterworth.

This is clear in some of the typologies of the play: Wesley, the pub landlord, is a sly dig at the two-faced puritan nonconformity of those who, like Aleister Crowley's father, could inherit a fortune from brewing while espousing strict abstinence as a member of the Plymouth Brethren. Likewise, Ginger is a stand-in for all the Celts, and Phaedra - for me the least successful of these types - is a queen of the trees and the fertility of the fields. The one that I had never noticed before, however, is Troy Whitworth - not merely a son of Priam, but Ilium itself. When Byron invokes Brutus of Albion at the end of the play, he draws upon the old legends invented by Geoffrey of Monmouth in that twelfth-century spell caster's book, The History of the Kings of Britain. Brutus, the descendant of Aeneas who fled Troy and founded Rome, landed on the shores of Albion as it was then known: here he found a lawless crew of giants, all of whom he slew and founded the kingdom of Britain. It is, of course, the kind of bullshit that Byron spouts regularly throughout the play, but on such bullshit entire nations are founded.

A superb example of Byron's ability to create this kind of myth is his account of his virgin birth, how his father, Hector's, wife shot him in the balls when she found him fornicating with another woman, the bullet of which landed in the womb of his mother so that nine months later he popped out, smiling, with the bullet clenched between his teeth. (Act Two, p.48) This wonderful shaggy-dog story is much, much funnier when performed by Rylance - one of many genuine comic stories that festoon the drama, lulling us into a false sense of security before the tragedy of the final act when Troy and his brothers beat Byron almost to death.

The story which most links Rooster Byron to Geoffrey of Monmouth, however, is his wonderful account of meeting the Giant who built Stonehenge. It is, of course, Geoffrey who first peddles the legend of the gigantic stone-shapers of the Wiltshire downs, but in Byron's version this becomes a hundred-foot man who he bumped into just off the A14, outside Uphaven. The delightful silliness of the tale - made even more delightful by some ad-libbing by Rylance during the performance - is discredited and doubted by Ginger, who fails to see that this is the storytelling, the myth making, that makes England what it is. Paul Kingsworth, in the essay "Oak, Ash and Thorn" included with the programme, laments that almost no-one today remembers the tale of Wayland the Blacksmith. I think that Kingsworth rather sentimentalises an ancient folk memory where everyone knew such stories, but the truth is that every place, every locale once did have its stories, and that these have been entombed and buried as much as any woodland covered in tarmac, housing estates or industrial agriculture.

As Byron reminds us at Act Three draws to its tragic conclusion, the Greenwood was once the lawless English forest, literally the place of those outside the law such as Robin Hood and his merry men. Since then, the common land has been parcelled out and distributed to local authorities and developers. Johnny ends in prophetic mode, and when he concludes the play with his powerful, almost druidic speech, calling upon the spirits of the land, he is an incarnation of Albion - flawed, self-destructive, pathetic and full of pathos, but also glorious, anarchic and defiant. The sons of Albion, those descendants of Priam, are murderers and monsters in Blake's works, but in the final moments of Jerusalem they are also those numberless devils who have a part to play in building Jerusalem in the forgotten forests of England's green and pleasant land.

Jerusalem is on at the Apollo Theatre, London, until 10 August, 2022.