Bollocks on Broadway

Jerusalem

by Jez Butterworth
a production by the Royal Court Theatre, London, directed by Ian Rickson at the Music Box Theater, New York City, through July 24, 2011
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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/Redux
Mark Rylance, center, and Danny Kirrane in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem

The red cross on a white background, the English national flag of Saint George, used, a few decades ago, to be little more than a curiosity—something you learned about in the Boy Scouts, along with reef knots and map-reading and the Morse code. In national life it took second place to the red, white, and blue Union Jack, which is the flag of the United Kingdom as a whole; for it was natural that, if you wanted to express your patriotism, you expressed it as a loyal citizen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not of England alone.

Today though, if you see the flag of Saint George displayed, it can mean two things: it can stand for an emphatically English nationalism (by common implication, a protest against the European Union’s intrusions on sovereignty); and it can herald a fanatical interest in soccer, a game in which, since England plays internationally as England, Scotland as Scotland, the fans are always clear and precise about whose side they are on: unlike the rest of us, they never say England when what they mean is Britain, or vice versa.

Strictly English nationalism comes with a sense of diminishment. It is like a falling back to a defensive position, a withdrawal to the last redoubt. The Empire has long gone. Ireland has mostly gone. Scotland and Wales keep threatening to be next. England is what we will be left with, more of a consolation prize than “England’s green and pleasant land.” William Blake’s “Jerusalem,” with its vision of building the Eternal City in the squalor of the “dark Satanic mills,” is sung by a young girl in a fairy costume at the opening of Jez Butterworth’s play—named for Blake’s poem—in front of what the play text stipulates: a “faded cross of St. George.” But the girl can scarcely finish the words of the song before a great cacophony is unleashed, and we see a dilapidated trailer, around which a wild party is taking place. It is night. Moments later the music stops as abruptly as it began, and the hellish vision vanishes. It is the morning after. A couple of local council officials are surveying the litter of the trailer camp—the furniture, the junk, the old British Railways sign for Waterloo Station, the chickens cooped under the trailer, the dreadful mess.

In a note to the text, the playwright finds it odd that, when this work was premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London, it was described as “a State of The Nation piece”—odd, Butterworth says, because “I have absolutely no idea what the State of The Nation might be.” Odder still, one might say, that he should take such a heavy vase of irony and break it over the audience’s heads if he did not want them …

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