No matter how many dreary events it’s played at, “Jerusalem” — a hymn with lyrics from a poem by William Blake set to music by Sir Hubert Parry — never loses the power to move and astonish, unlike so many jingoistic anthemic songs. “Jerusalem” speaks of a mythic time when Christ visited England and of Blake’s longing to see his country transformed and made holy and perfect once again: “I will not cease from mental fight/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand/Till we have built Jerusalem/In England’s green and pleasant land.” The words, which are yearning rather than narrowly nationalistic, leap in the imagination, and the music soars in passionate spiritual aspiration.
When Jez Butterworth titled a play Jerusalem and began it with a young girl singing Blake’s hymn, he signaled that the work concerned more than just the escapades of a dissolute outcast in a West Country village, in danger of losing his trailer home as new housing developments hemmed it in all around, who had collected a group of disaffected teenagers for an ongoing booze- and drug-soaked party. Johnny “Rooster” Byron is a braggart, liar and tall-tale teller with a reputation as an Evil Knievel-type daredevil who once jumped over buses. On the literal level, he’s a boneheaded loser. Metaphorically, he’s a more significant figure, a manifestation of the Lord of Misrule appointed in ancient times to upend law and custom during winter festivities. (Shakespeare’s Falstaff is the most famous literary example.) You can look at the people who flock to Byron — including the half-mad middle-aged Professor — as hopeless misfits or see them as a community of the once-lost who have found home and meaning in Byron’s world, an interpretation strengthened by the inventive, exuberant in-group language.
Butterworth has said that he didn’t rely on any specific myth or symbol cluster for his script, but symbol and metaphor are everywhere. This is a play with not one, but two deaths and resurrections. A play in which a character goes to sleep in the woods and wakes up crowned with flowers, and the elected May Queen — the one who sings “Jerusalem” — wears a fairy costume. And then there’s a drum that supposedly summons giants.
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Jerusalem, which is set on St. George’s Day, is in part a commentary on the state of England, the war being waged on history and tradition by modernizers and gentrifiers, the relentless metastasis of development in once-green places. The talk of fairies and strange goings-on in the woods echoes both Shakespeare and the Victorians. Morris dancing, in which men adorned with tinkling bells perform on village greens, tends to be seen as a silly leftover — as it is here — but it’s also a tradition dating back to the fifteenth century. And something deep in the culture of the island honors muddle, eccentricity and defiance. G.K. Chesterton evoked this perfectly: “Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode/The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road/A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire/And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire.”
This is a very ambitious production for the small Edge Theater, with a cast of fourteen and a complicated set by Christopher Waller. It’s a big, rambunctious, brilliant play that slides effortlessly from raucous comedy to violence, pathos to mockery — and takes three hours to do it. Director Warren Sherrill has done well by it, despite a few production flaws. The play requires not just an English accent, but a regional one, and much of its power lies in the language; some of the actors have trouble with the speech patterns, and I lost a lot of the dialogue. Fortunately, Augustus Truhn does a terrific job of making the central character of Byron a true and towering original. When Emily Paton Davies appears briefly as Byron’s ex-girlfriend, she stills and grounds the entire evening. John Hauser is a sympathetic Lee, a kid about to escape to Australia, and Marc Stith’s Troy is believably menacing. Newcomer Bethany Richardson makes a clear mark as fairy-winged Phaedra — who’s either a victim or a rotten little betrayer. Or both.
Jerusalem, presented by Edge Theater Company through May 24, 1560 Teller Street, Lakewood, 303-232-0363, theedgetheater.com.