The Problem of English Identity

And the play that lays bare Britain’s constructed myths

The cast of 'Jerusalem'
Simon Annand; The Atlantic

The week I saw Jerusalem, the West End revival of Jez Butterworth’s extraordinary 2009 play, London was still cleaning up after a days-long ruckus celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee, the 70th anniversary of her reign. In my neighborhood, tattered bunting clung weakly to lampposts and gathered dirt under car tires at the side of the road. I picked bits of plastic flags and ice-cream wrappers out from my window boxes. In Chelsea, where the jubilee celebrations coincided with the annual flower show, retail stores and brands had created green installations on the street honoring totems of supposed Britishness: teapots made of daisies, a Union Jack formed from roses and hydrangeas, a larger-than-life crimson-stock Welsh Guard with a chrysanthemum corgi by his side. The effect was similarly striking and insincere, more advertorial than actual tribute—pomp and circumstance designed for Instagram.

That same week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson narrowly survived a vote of no confidence by his own party after months of revelations about his office’s conduct while Britain was on national lockdown amid the coronavirus pandemic. The slow drip of disclosed details about parties reportedly held by Johnson’s staff—including wine smuggled into Downing Street in suitcases, vomiting attendees, spilled red wine left for cleaning staff to mop up, two raucous parties held the evening before the Queen attended her husband’s funeral—was, if not fatal, extraordinarily damaging for Johnson’s repute. (Johnson, who was fined for attending his own birthday party, has apologized, but insisted “it did not occur to him” that the gathering was prohibited.) Entering St. Paul’s Cathedral for a Jubilee service honoring the Queen, he was booed by the assembled crowds. In context: For a conservative prime minister to have lost the favor of even the most ardent royalists during a momentous national celebration is about as bad as it gets.

If you were looking for a summation of the state of contemporary England, that week laid it all bare: twee floral arrangements, the fetishization of history, cheap supermarket booze, privilege, appalling messes made for workers to clean up. Against this backdrop, Jerusalem felt to me less like a play than a prophecy. It debuted 13 years ago, before Brexit, before David Cameron’s austerity agenda, before the plight of the rural, white working classes had become electorally significant on both sides of the Atlantic. But with its portrayal of Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a small-time drug dealer and inordinately charismatic local menace about to be expelled from his existence near a bucolic village in southwest England, Jerusalem seemed to anticipate everything that was coming. To be English, it suggests, is to be part of a great contradiction recurring over and over. It’s to boast about the mythology of a national identity without remotely invoking it in practice; to wave a flag to Edward Elgar, ingest nothing but cider and pork scratchings for eight hours, and then extravagantly throw up in a corner. Nothing has ever been as crucial to England’s sense of self as storytelling, and yet it’s still surprising how much of its identity is based on things—exceptionalism, legend, the superiority of imperial measurements—that are so manifestly untrue.

I was living in the United States in 2009 and so missed Jerusalem’s initial, wildly praised run in the United Kingdom. I couldn’t afford tickets to its Broadway production in 2011, for which the actor Mark Rylance won a Tony for playing Rooster. The current 2022 revival of the play at the Apollo Theatre in London, in which Rylance reprises his role alongside a number of original cast members, supposedly came about for prosaic reasons: Butterworth has said he simply wanted his daughter, who was too young to see it when it was first staged, to be able to watch it now. In a recent conversation for the online news platform Tortoise, he vehemently resisted the idea that Jerusalem was written as a state-of-the-nation play, or a drama with anything more topical on its mind than, as he puts it, “wanting to stay but having to go.” Its timelessness is, I’d argue, why it feels so timely now. The specific mess of Englishness, the collision of myth and reason, and the question of what it means to belong to a place that has no place for you are all more urgent than ever.

The play has been received since its debut as an astonishing piece of art, and maybe even the best British play of the 21st century, the next 80 years be damned. It’s a mass of contradictions: a three-hour drama that passes in a blink; a feral howl of a comedy; a profane, slangy piece of art that honors Aristotle’s three unities—the principles of classical theater (the idea that where a play takes place, its time span, and its action should all be tightly constrained). The show takes place on St. George’s Day, April 23, in the woods outside a Wiltshire village where the construction of new houses is encroaching on the land where Rooster lives in a filthy old trailer. In the opening scene, Phaedra (played by Eleanor Worthington-Cox), a 15-year-old girl dressed as a fairy, sings “Jerusalem,” the strangely rousing British hymn that imagines Jesus visiting “England’s green and pleasant land.” When she gets to the word satanic in the second verse, the stage lights cut to black, electronic music blasts out like a violation, and the stage curtain rises on a rave in the woods. The old order of things has been rudely interrupted by the new.

Jerusalem takes place on a single day in a single location where all of the play’s characters come to commune: the council officials who want to evict Rooster, the teenagers who come to him for low-grade speed and solace, the former partner who wants Rooster to take his son to the fair, the villagers who think he knows more about a missing teenager than he’s letting on. The play hinges on Rylance’s performance, which is one of the most extraordinarily loaded and physical portrayals of a character in modern times. Rooster is a hedonist in the tradition of Falstaff and Keith Richards; he’s a satyr and a poet; he’s Milton’s rebel angel of unspeakable desires; he’s a cult leader; he’s the embarrassing old drunk who pissed himself in the pub corner and won’t go home. Rylance plays him with chest puffed out into grandiloquence, the painful shuffle of a man with no unbroken bones, and the periodic grace of a pixie. (In Rylance’s playbill listing for the show’s Broadway run, he specifically thanked his chiropractor.) During Rooster’s morning routine, he limps out of his trailer, dives into a handstand inside a trough of water to douse his hangover, and mixes himself a foul-seeming drink made out of a raw egg, vodka, sour milk, and a wrap of speed. When Rylance drinks it onstage, the audience explodes.

The tensions of the plot involve Rooster’s home, whether he’ll be able to keep it, and what will happen to the people who seek sanctuary of all kinds in the woods. The characters in Rooster’s orbit occupy varying states of permanence and flight: Ginger (Mackenzie Crook) is the oldest of his acolytes, who seems to have drifted to his side almost accidentally; Lee (Jack Riddiford) has sold all of his childhood possessions ahead of a voyage to Australia; Davey (Ed Kear) is so deeply rooted locally, he says, that if “I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop.” All seem to sense a kind of fabled significance in the place they call home. Lee talks about “ley lines,” or mystical lines of energy some believe link spiritual sites in England, and how Rooster’s wood, for the druids, would have been holy land. The teenagers who drink and fornicate and pass out in the woods seem to sense that they’re in a spot where the normal rules of society have never applied. In Jerusalem, as in Shakespeare, to go into the woods is to embrace anarchic lawlessness and surreal adventure. As Rooster bellows in one scene, “What the fuck do you think an English forest is for?”

For a play to be so unambiguously occupied with Englishness might provoke anxiety these days. The flag of St. George, the red-and-white flag that since the 1970s has tended to be a symbol of the ugliest kind of nationalism, is painted on the stage’s curtain as Phaedra makes her entrance. It’s a reminder that England is the country of Shakespeare, yes, and of profound past cultural power, but it’s also a small island whose bloated sense of self has historically had awful consequences. Before Jerusalem returned to the stage this year, a handful of playwrights expressed concern about how its supposed lionization of homeland and a “lost” England might play now. But this critique seems like a fundamental misreading. The play doesn’t condemn or boost any of its characters; it leaves space for audiences to interpret whether the town’s obsessive bureaucrats are the villains or whether Rooster is a loathsome threat endangering the local children.

My reading of Jerusalem, and my sense of why it registers at a slightly different frequency now, is that the play captures the potency of storytelling, for good and for bad. Rylance gives Rooster so much charisma that, as an audience member, you will his stories to be true. You ache for his fantastical yarns about 90-foot giants and his “rare” blood to be real, because they’re so much more compelling, and more moving, than the alternative. If Englishness is a place, it’s where pagan chaos meets tyrannical order. And the right kind of interpreter can mine magic from this kind of locale and its abundant clichés. (Nothing is more English about Rooster, I’d argue, than the moment he pours milk into three teacups on a tray clutched with an unshaking—albeit fiendishly hungover—hand.) But to lose sight of the fact that so much of our national identity as Englishmen and women is constructed and fake is to risk falling sway to darker impulses. What we’re left with at the end of Jerusalem feels like a warning: an extraordinary storyteller clinging dangerously to his own mythos in the vain hope that it will save him from eviction.