The English. Two words that (a) make some people swell with Henry V pride (b) make others cringe and apologetic and (c) do both of the above. Why does the idea of Englishness produce such ambivalent responses? Perhaps it is because some would like to believe that Englishness is the Women's Institute (before the calendars); John Betjeman wandering in some church yard; the Lark Ascending; picnics, oak trees, Windermere; the BBC World Service. But this romantic construct has a shadow side: lairy lads squaring up to each other outside nightclubs. Pale girls standing in huddles, giggling and shivering, as they watch drunken punches being thrown. The wailing of police sirens. Vomit and ugliness on the streets. Is this the true identity of the English? Or, perhaps, the Lion heart of Albion is not to be found in Ye Olde English pubs or the epidemic of retail parks but beats in the darker, ancient soil of this green and pleasant land?
Jez Butterworth's new play, Jerusalem, opens with a young woman dressed like a bit-part fairy from A Midsummer Night's Dream singing, Jerusalem. She stands in front of the fire curtain which has been painted with a distressed image of the flag of St George (the action takes place on the 23 April: the Feast of St George). As she reaches the climax of the anthem ("...I will not cease from mental fight/ nor shall my sword sleep in my hand..."), her singing is drowned out by the drum 'n' bass of rave music; the flag lifts to reveal stoned youngsters dancing in a forest clearing. If you want to find the identity of the English then don't look to the Countryside Alliance but look at the rural slum-dwellers, the forest "trailer-trash" living on the margins of our towns. Welcome to the pastoral idyll of Byron Rooster, the Lord of Misrule.
Byron Rooster, once the West Country's own Evil Knievel, has become a middle-aged Pied Piper gathering the impressionable and disaffected with promises of "whizz, wangers and sick beats" and his surreal stories of an England populated by fairies, werewolves and demon hounds. The actor, Mark Rylance, plays Byron Rooster as part shaman-hermit, part feral-waster; a mixture of John Clare and Falstaff. This is a performance of immense psychological depth and nuance, perfectly pitched especially in the telling of his fabulous stories. There's the story of how Byron was once kidnapped by four Nigerian traffic wardens who forced him to watch a snooker semi-final. Escaping this torture, he met an English giant, the architect of Stonehenge, "just off the A14 outside Upavon. About half a mile from the Little Chef. I'd been up for three days and nights straight playing canasta with these old ladies in a retirement home outside Wootton Bassett...bled me white...three nights drinking straight Drambuie with nothing but Custard Creams to soak it up."
Using a modern idiom, Rooster channels the old English mythologies that have been largely lost to this culture: Wayland the Smith; Woden, the god of the slain; Thunor with his hammer of fire and his sacred groves; Frig, Balder and Ing. In his programme note, Paul Kingsworth writes:
But the myths of a nation are about more than gods; they are about the folk legends, the small stories, the culture that grows from season and place. In England this gives us, amongst others, the strange mystery of the green man, his foliate heard carved on churches over centuries...Who is he? If we once knew we have forgotten, like we have forgotten Jack the Green and the origins of Robin Hood; like we have forgotten Hereward the Wake and Eadric the Wild and Jack Cade; like we have forgotten...the story of the wind smith, the meaning of the white horses and the ballads of the sea.
In a secular age, is there any place for myths? Do they have any value? J.R.R. Tolkein (who tried to retrieve ancient English myths and re-present them in The Lord of the Rings and his other works) argued that myths could steer us towards powerful truths about ourselves. Although myths were created by humans, their unique, universal quality was evidence that they came from a hidden, profound reality beyond our conceptual grasp. Myths provided human beings with a creative way to approach the mystery of this reality by an indirect, veiled route. "In expounding this belief in the inherent truth of mythology," wrote Tolkien's biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, "Tolkien had laid bare the center of his philosophy as a writer, the creed that is at the heart of The Simarillion."
For Tolkien, Jesus Christ was the reality that man was looking for. In the true myth of Jesus Christ, man's truest identity and destiny were revealed. Pagan myths provided fragmentary images of the Eternal Reality but in Christ, the true myth took flesh and the Triune God was revealed to humanity. Thus, Tolkein believed that, far from being an exercise in escapist fantasy, myths alone could begin to express the ultimate form of realism, the ground of our being.
Jez Butterworth's play does not attempt anything as ambitious as building a philosophy of myth, but it does relocate the idea of myth centre stage, reminding us of its importance. Butterworth argues that the English identity will only be discovered when we unearth the mythic hoard that has lain hidden in the landscape of the English psyche and allow it to stir up truths about what it means to be English and more importantly, what it means to be a person.
Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth at the Apollo Theatre, London.