Jerusalem, Storm Boy

Jerusalem, New Theatre, Sydney, August 22. Storm Boy, Sydney Theatre Company and Barking Gecko Theatre Company, Wharf 1, Sydney. August 22 matinee.

JERUSALEM’S Rooster Byron is a raucous, irredeemable rebuke to polite society. He offends in every possible way. Squatting on council land in a wood on the fringes of an English town, Rooster is an unkempt lord of the revels who takes drink and drugs in heroic quantities and responsibility for nothing, speaks in eloquent profanities, fails to keep up with his most basic obligations as a father (absentee, naturally) and embraces anarchy as his right. He is, unsurprisingly, a magnet for some of the town’s more bolshie youth and a few older, less assured men.

This description, however, just scratches the surface, because Rooster is also something quite profound. He is an appalling disgrace, no doubt about it, but in an England sinking into conformism, mediocrity and irrelevance, he is also a figure of mythic grandeur.

New Theatre's Jerusalem. Photo: Matthias Engesser

New Theatre’s Jerusalem. Photo: Matthias Engesser

Rooster is about to be evicted from his rural glade by the local council, another victory for town planning and bourgeois morals. Even worse – and this is perhaps the real heart of Jez Butterworth’s extraordinary play – urban development is more than the “spread” it’s usually called. It’s a steamroller, crushing and smoothing all those rich local differences of history, language, accent and storytelling. Urbanisation is leaching England of its colour, individuality and vitality. No wonder Rooster chafes against the bit.

Jerusalem – the title comes, of course, from visionary poet William Blake – is set in the south-west of England on St George’s Day. There’s an annual local fair at which games and dances native to the area are celebrated, but one senses that these aren’t heartfelt traditions any more. They are like museum objects, brought out for the day and admired. Or mocked.

Against this backdrop Rooster’s cronies gather round to wassail and listen to the big fella rail against the council and tell improbable yarns relating to his background as an Evil Knievel-style entertainer, his virgin birth (a tale involving an unusual bullet) and his encounter with a giant, a story told and received as if it were entirely possible and reasonable.

Butterworth’s interweaving of the fantastical with sordid reality is exhilarating and exceptionally funny, but Jerusalem has a strong streak of melancholy, too. This mad idyll can’t last. Abattoir worker Davey has never left Wiltshire and never wanted to, but his blithe, brief description of his working week speaks volumes. Another young man, Lee, is about to move away, as far away as possible. There is Rooster’s son to remind Byron of his failings, there’s his spectacularly unsuccessful mate Ginger and there is a girl who has gone missing. Rooster will go down fighting, but go down he will.

Nicholas Eadie as Rooster Byron in Jerusalem. Photo: Matthias Engesser

Nicholas Eadie as Rooster Byron in Jerusalem. Photo: Matthias Engesser

New Theatre’s production does Jerusalem proud. Under Helen Tonkin’s direction and in Tom Bannerman’s appropriately chaotic set, the large cast revels in the Shakespearean language and imagery of this large-spirited, wild and romantic piece. There’s good work from everyone, but Nicholas Eadie as Rooster and Jeremy Waters as Ginger are the necessary linchpins. Ginger, a DJ wannabe, is full of wiry energy and optimism, the latter tragically misplaced. Eadie’s paunchy Rooster is still cock of this seedy walk but he’s no fool. His ranting and raging are insufficient weapons against the bleak truths he has to acknowledge.

And the truth is that probably no, you wouldn’t want to live next door to Rooster. His time is over.

“IS this real, miss?” a sweet little girl whispered to me during Storm Boy as lights flashed and the sound of thunder reverberated through the theatre. Well, no, and yes. Alongside the pretend storm created by the production there was a much louder one in the auditorium as several hundred schoolchildren let themselves off the leash and roared. Their timing was astonishingly precise, it must be said, and their volume impressive. Fortissimo to the power of 1000.

One slightly older girl sitting just behind me really got into it, screaming and screaming and laughing. She didn’t seem to enjoy the rest of the play much, wriggling a lot and talking to her friends.

Here were two completely divergent responses. One child was taken into the world of make-believe, the other was stoutly resistant. The older girl irritated the hell out of me with her chatter, but she fascinated me too. Eyeing a group of girls from a different school, she noted to her friend that these students were allowed to wear mufti for their theatre outing rather than uniforms. “They must be from the city. Posh,” she said, in a way that managed to be simultaneously dismissive, definitive and very grown up.

Storm Boy at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Brett Boardman

Storm Boy at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Brett Boardman

Later, right near the end of the play, Fingerbone Bill talks about things looking as if they are always the same – the sand, the waves – but in reality they keep changing, eluding our efforts to hold on to them. It reminds us of the great cycle of life and renewal.

… in your heart you’ll always see the shape of those two big wings in the storm clouds. The flying wings of white with trailing black edges, spread across the sky. Because little fella, birds like Mr Percival … they never really die.

“Yes he does,” said my young neighbour like a shot, briskly and not untruthfully.

Did her cool-eyed, unsentimental view of the world affect my perception of Storm Boy? Possibly. Probably. I felt that the play, adapted from Colin Thiele’s book by Tom Holloway and directed by John Sheedy, was rather too spare and slow, even though it’s only about 70 minutes long. Although usually an easy mark when it comes to a sad bit, I didn’t get teary when Mr Percival was slain, although I very much enjoyed the puppet birds, expertly operated by Shaka Cook and Michael Smith.

For a completely different reaction to a different performance of Storm Boy, read the review by my friend and colleague Jo Litson on her blog, jolitson.com. No one ever sees the same show as someone else – that is one of theatre’s immutable givens and one of its endless fascinations.

Storm Boy ends September 8 in Sydney.  Barking Gecko Theatre Company presents Storm Boy at the State Theatre Centre of WA, Perth, from September 21-October 5.

Jerusalem ends September 14.

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