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Theatre / Jerusalem

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Jerusalem is a critically acclaimed 2009 play by Jez Butterworth, frequently hailed as the most important new play of the 21st century and a seminal classic in the making. Of particular note is the almost universally lauded performance of longtime leading man Mark Rylance, whose profile soared on the strength of his turn as Johnny "Rooster" Byron (some critics went so far as to compare him to Laurence Olivier)

Johnny Byron, an eccentric ex-daredevil turned hard-drinking, trailer-dwelling hermit, lives in the midst of an idyllic pastoral forest on the outskirts of his small town. He attracts a royal court of misfits and outsiders, including some local teenagers whom he supplies drugs and alcohol. Johnny's drunken antics and drug-peddling make him a bur under the town's saddle and as the play begins a longtime campaign to evict and/or arrest him nears its endgame. At stake is more than just Johnny's wayward lifestyle; developers have an eye on turning his plot of forest into suburban sprawl, as they have most of the surrounding region. On St. George's Day, Johnny makes his last stand, and he and his followers have the chance to learn what they and each other are really made of.

"Jerusalem" premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009 to ecstatic reviews before moving to the Apollo Theatre in 2010, where it played until early 2012. For part of 2011 the production left the Apollo to play on Broadway with most of the original cast. In early 2014 a new production opened in San Francisco, the first and so far only wholly American production and the first without Butterworth or Rylance on hand.


This show contains examples of the following:

  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: Johnny, in a drunken mania, destroys his television, then doesn't remember doing it the next day. Even when shown a video of himself clearing doing the deed he declares the incident, "A complete fucking mystery."
    • Earlier in the same scene we learn that Johnny is now barred from every bar in town, complete with a Homeric list of his heinous acts in each.
  • Anti-Hero: Johnny is very much an anti-hero in the classical sense: Someone who lacks most openly heroic traits but who is our (surprisingly sympathetic) protagonist anyway.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Ginger is sometimes eager to accept Johnny's stories at face value but keen to poke holes in them other times.
  • Awkward Father-Son Bonding Activity: Johnny was supposed to take Marky to the fair. He forgot. It would have been awkward anyway. Matter of fact, it still is.
  • The BBC: The gang debate whether or not the BBC still has the journalistic wherewithal to report on the appearance of a 90-foot giant in the English countryside. It's a surprisingly nuanced exchange.
  • Advertisement:
  • Beleaguered Bureaucrat: Although in truth, they're only beleaguered because of dealing with Johnny.
  • Berserk Button: Troy does NOT appreciate anyone messing around with his daughter.
  • Black-and-Grey Morality: No doubt about it, Johnny is a sleaze, but it's hard not to want to side with him when his antagonists are such callow hypocrites.
  • Boisterous Bruiser: Johnny Byron, again.
  • Bolivian Army Ending: Particularly potent when combined with the Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane elements of the drum.
  • Break-Up Bonfire: Lee is breaking up not with a woman but with his hometown—When he can't manage to sell any of his worldly possessions on eBay, he burns them instead.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: The professor seems like he'd actually be a damn good teacher if you can just get past the fact that he's, you know, insane.
  • Butt-Monkey: Ginger, Johnny's put-upon right-hand man and court jester. To an even greater degree, Wesley, Johnny's childhood pal turned pub manager who gets no respect from anyone. And, in a very real way, even Johnny himself.
  • Can't Hold His Liquor: The Professor is quite a lightweight compared to the rest of the cast.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The drum.
  • Children Are Innocent: Played straight with Marky, subverted with the rest of the teenagers and their parents who like to pretend this trope applied to their own childhoods.
  • Cloud Cuckoo Lander: The Professor.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: It's a toss-up whether the word "fuck" or the word "cunt" make more appearances in the script. We should note tat the latter is not nearly as serious a swear in England as in America.
  • Contemplating Your Hands: During Ginger's freakout he can't figure out why his hand feels so heavy. He's carrying a coconut.
  • Crappy Carnival: The St. George's Day Fair is the highlight of the season, but it's also considered a rather listless, tacky affair. The diminished quality of the festivities over the decades represent the townspeople's alienation from their cultural heritage and the pagan trappings of past epochs.
  • Cruel to Be Kind: Johnny verbally runs Ginger down in pretty merciless fashion at the end of the show, but presumably does it to keep him from sticking around and getting hurt.
    • Inverted with Troy: He's arguably doing Johnny a favor by revealing that the kids don't really respect him...but he's still just doing it to be a dick.
  • Curse: In the end Johnny curses the developers and the ground they want to build on. Does it work? Depends on your interpretation.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Johnny, at the end. Although this is arguably his general mode for the entire show.
  • The Dragon Slayer: The play is set on St. George's Day, and the myth of St. George slaying the dragon is an important leitmotif. It is possible that Johnny is meant to be the dragon, or that he is meant to be the knight—or perhaps both.
  • Drugs Are Bad: Played with. The show certainly does depict the negative effects of longterm drub abuse, but audiences are clearly steered toward the conclusion that the problem is really the people rather than the drugs. Well over three quarters of the cast get high at some point in the show, and about half of them are taking some kind of drug or another nonstop.
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: Ginger is mistaken for a woman by the senile old Professor due to his long hair.
  • Dying for Symbolism
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The play is three hours and as many acts long, but it only covers the events of a single day.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The Professor. We can only guess how long ago he held that particular position.
  • Everybody Must Get Stoned: Johnny and his minions are *constantly* consuming drugs. Even ostensibly more respectable characters like Dawn, Wesley, and the Professor have a little.
  • Evil Former Friend: Like everyone in town, Troy was once part of Johnny's entourage.
  • The Fair Folk: Phaedra asks if Johnny has ever seen a real fairy in the woods, and he recounts her with tales of "all sorts of strange things" he claims to have witnessed.
  • Fetus Terrible: According to Johnny, Byron boys come out of the womb wearing a cloak with a dagger concealed underneath. "Always search a Byron boy at birth."
  • Fire of Comfort: Three times in the show Johnny sets something around his house on fire, and each time it hardens his resolve.
  • Friend to All Children: Johnny again, in his strange way.
  • Functional Addict: Note that "functional" can be a bit of a sliding scale.
  • Genki Girl: Pea.
  • Good Is Not Nice: Johnny... perhaps.
  • Harmful to Minors: We never do find out what makes Phaedra run away (and get help from Johnny of all people), but it's presumably much, much worse than any of the routine debauchery we see going on—which is pretty scary to think about.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Pea and Tanya.
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager: Yep.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: First thing in the morning Johnny downs a cocktail consisting of milk, whiskey, cocaine, and a single raw egg. Note that the egg is real, and that Mark Rylance (and other actors in the role) actually downs it onstage in one go.
  • In Harmony with Nature: Johnny, despite the fact that his trailer is something of an environmental blight.
  • Innocence Lost: At the heart of the play lies the question of just when and how children lose their innocence—and whether or not their elders are fooling themselves about it.
    • In a less literal sense, the loss of Johnny's woods represents the end of a kind of natural, rural innocent in England.
  • Jerkass: Everyone at some point. But Troy is the designated "town cunt."
    • Johnny rebuts the petition filed against him by listing off the faults and prejudices of each person on it. One guy he dismisses simply because, "He's a cunt."
  • Landmark of Lore: Stonehenge lies not far from the town and from Johnny's trailer, and is an important part of the mythology of Johnny's own life.
  • Last Fertile Region: Johnny's woods are framed as a kind of last holdout against suburban encroachment. Notable that the town plans to drive him out with bulldozers.
  • Let the Past Burn
  • Magic Mirror: When Troy was younger and one of Johnny's regulars, he one night poured wine onto a silver plate ("Like a mirror of blood") and spread playing cards ("The old kind, with the devil on the back.") around it to serve as a kind of makeshift Magic Mirror. Whatever he saw in it spooked him so bad he never came back.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Johnny is full of tale tales about giants, fairies, magic and the like. They're almost certainly all lies. Almost certainly.
  • Meaningful Name: Johnny bares the Byron name, perhaps a nod to the great libertine poet. Ginger's last name is "Yeats."
  • The Münchausen: Johnny Byron in spades.
  • My Local: Coopers, apparently the pub most favored by the relevant characters and where Wesley works. Johnny has been banned from every pub in town for his drunken antics.
  • Mystical Pregnancy: Johnny claims that he was conceived when a bullet passed through his father's scrotum and struck his (virgin) mother's belly. Eight months and some odd days later he was born, with the bullet clenched between his teeth.
  • Nature Hero: Johnny, in a highly singular example. He's also something of a force of nature: At various points he's compare, directly or indirectly, to an ogre, a troll, a werewolf, and a dragon.
  • Never Accepted in His Hometown: Everyone in town loves Johnny—until they grow up and/or are suddenly expected to behave like respectable people, at which point they tend to turn him.
  • Never Gets Drunk: Actually, everyone was *very* drunk the night before. But during the course of the show everyone chugs gallons of booze and doesn't really show much for it. Perhaps justified if we consider that they're very probably *already drunk* when they start.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Near the end of Act Three.
  • Only Mostly Dead: Early on, Ginger tells the teenagers a story about Johnny's daredevil days that starts like this: "He tried to jump twenty eighteen-wheelers, and he fucked it up, and died." Turns out, Johnny survived.
  • Our Giants Are Bigger: Johnny's supposedly magic drum will, if played, awaken all the great old giants who once roamed ancient England—he says.
  • Parental Incest: Johnny accuses Troy of being a little too sweet on Phaedra. Whether there's any grounds for this is never revealed.
  • Patriotic Fervor: Despite its seedy trappings, "Jerusalem" is very much an ode to love of country, and a lament for what has perhaps been lost in English cultural tradition.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: Phaedra in her May Queen getup.
  • The Power of Blood: Johnny teaches Marky that his Byron blood, "Romany blood," is special, perhaps even magically powerful. In the final moments of the play, Johnny's blood becomes a potent component of the curse he puts on the land.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Certainly how Johnny and his buddies like to think of themselves.
  • Real Men Hate Affection: Averted. Johnny is constantly trying to get his son to give him a kiss on the cheek.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Lee, the restless dreamer who is leaving town to find himself, and Dave, the practical, unromantic working man who sees no reason to ever leave.
  • Rite of Passage: Many: Losing your virginity, having your first drink, joining Johnny's gang and, later, leaving Johnny's gang, and for some, like Lee, leaving town altogether.
  • Smalltown Boredom: Lee's subplot revolves around his desire to escape town and broaden his horizons. Phaedra asks Johnny why he stays and he replies, "This town is no worse than any other place," which she considers a "depressing" prospect.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Fairport Convention's gentle, wistful "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" plays while Johnny is savagely beaten.
  • Sex with the Ex: Johnny tries to convince Dawn to "Come on back tonight." She is obviously sorely tempted, even as she remains angry with him and herself.
  • Teenage Wasteland: Although Johnny, as ringleader, is actually in his 50s.
  • The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: There's a running gag that Ginger fancies himself a DJ but never actually DJs.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: Johnny and his sidekicks stage a mock revolution (just a party, as usual) in protest of the housing development. Even the Professor joins in, noting that "English revolutions are by their nature bloody affairs" and encouraging an attitude of casual violence. (He's joking. Also, incredibly high.)
  • Titled After the Song: In this case, the famous English hymn by Hubert Parry, the lyrics of which come from the poem "And did those feet in ancient time" by William Blake. The song is performed at the very top of the show, and later on, by Phaedra.
  • Wacky Parent, Serious Child
  • Walking the Earth: Lee's plan to leave town and move to Australia for no particularly well-defined reason forms a significant subplot.
  • What Did I Do Last Night?: About half of the first act is the main cast waking up in the ruins of last night's party: Lee actually wakes up screaming, "Where am I?" Johnny has smashed his own TV to bits but doesn't remember it even when they show him the video; Tanya has shit stains on her blouse and the rest of the cast take turns trying to guess its origins (they eventually settle on it being badger shit), etc.
  • Who's Your Daddy?: Johnny hints that he may, in fact, be Phaedra's father. It is possible that this is true or just that he's saying it to take the piss out of Troy. Or, most likely, both.
  • Wild Teen Party: Though for the most part we only see the aftermath.
  • Wild Wilderness: The last holdout of it, at least.
  • You Rebel Scum!: Eighty percent of the population of the town signed the complaint notice about Johnny.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Is Johnny a bohemian social misfit holding onto his integrity in the face of bland corporatist conformity...or is he just a sleaze?