Art often imitates life, but it’s rare that a West End play gets taken up by a group of anti-capitalist protesters as the perfect encapsulation of their spirit of defiance. But this is just what has happened to Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, a play that is back in the West End with Mark Rylance once again giving his barnstorming performance as Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron – a modern-day Pied Piper who refuses to bow to the eviction notice served on him by local council officials.
But head on down to the campsite at St Paul’s, currently occupied by protesters under the collective name of ‘Occupy the London Stock Exchange’, and you’ll find an alternative ‘performance’ of the play. A very alternative one, in fact.
Here, the man behind the project to bring Jerusalem to the protesters – a protester himself with no previous theatrical experience, who goes only by the name of ‘Bill’ – explains what’s going on in a series of bulletins from the front line.
Date: Sunday 30 October
Subject: ‘Jerusalem’ at St Paul’s
The first play-reading will take place today [30th October] at 4.30pm. It may well turn out to be a shambles, raining and under-attended, but it’s a start!
With any luck, if the readings gain momentum, and a gang starts to get together, we might try and manage a ‘proper’ performance/production? But it’s all very much ‘see how it goes’ at the moment.
Am very grateful to Jez Butterworth for his kind permission to let us do this, against the usual rules when the play’s on in the West End!
Date: Tuesday 1 November
Subject: Mrs Theatre
The project has turned out very differently from the original idea because I haven’t seen either of the two people who wanted to do it too since the night of the big conversation about it (Thursday). It’s fairly usual for people to come and go without telling anyone. The upshot is, by Saturday, I began to realise I was alone with the project. I got quite frightened and wanted to drop out: I have no connection with the theatre, am not an actor, director or anything, secondly, it was impossible to find any appropriate space to do anything in the St Paul’s camp, and I was beginning to feel uncertain there, wondering if the interests of the protests might be better served by the Finsbury Square camp [a second scene of protest at Finbury Square, EC1].
By very happy chance I discovered someone had made a theatre in a tent at Finsbury Square when I moved to that camp on Sunday. This project would have been impossible without her (I don’t actually know her name. ‘I’m Mrs Theatre,’ she said.)
Have to go now but will e-mail later.
Date: Tuesday 1 November
Subject: Apocalypse Now
Today was a no-show too: it coincided with a big General Meeting up at the St Paul’s site (which won’t be cleared tomorrow after all, as a new legal development has postponed it again.)
I haven’t really left the campsites for the past week, and am grateful for the opportunity to make contact with anyone unconnected with them. They can get a bit hardcore. Finsbury Square, in particular, never sleeps. St Pauls is often manic in the day but gets quite peaceful in the middle of the night, (except for the bells, though I really liked these, one of the best sounds ever). Finsbury Square, meanwhile, is fairly laid back in the daytime, and the public use it as a walk-through, but when it starts to get dark it begins to change; the nights can get a bit ‘Apocalypse Now’. There have been a few problems. Some of the people are street alcoholics, (but no less brilliant for that). There’s often trouble from the public too, late night gangs of men screaming at us, provoking an even more furious response from volatile people on the site. Sometimes protestors arrive in the middle of the night from other parts of the country and can get a bit shirty if they are told they have to come back in the morning. A group of five trashed the kitchen tent at 1am this morning before raging off intending to camp on Parliament Square.
At the reading we had on Sunday, none of the participants had heard of the play, and only one person, Mrs Theatre, had much declared interest in theatre generally. Everyone was a non-actor. But immediately the play had everyone’s absorption and, very soon in, I didn’t have to do or explain anything any more, for all concerned were utterly carrying it. They laughed a lot. The part of Johnny was read by an Irish man of roughly Johnny’s age, no fixed abode, a hurricane of drink and he did it all joyously. He read quite fast, which the reading needed, and the beautiful thing was he’d frequently realise how funny the line he was reading actually was, halfway through reading it, and would crack up laughing. I hoped he might be around for further readings, but haven’t seen him since. Mrs Theatre really loves the play and wants to keep going with it – we didn’t get all the way through on Sunday and she wants to. The play connected with everyone immediately; my aim at the moment is to keep going with it in the hope maybe others will want to continue with the project and I can pass it over to them.
I have been asked questions by many people, and I’ve no idea who they are; questions like ‘is this your theatre then?’, ‘Are you running a company?’ and in some cases, while they examine a copy of the play: Are you the author?
Thanks, Jez Butterworth for this play, for its defiance against rising tyranny, and for creasing us up when we most needed creasing.
Date: Friday 4 November
Subject: ‘The Miracle’
The readings are starting to go exactly as hoped, for now: they are not performances, there is no audience. It’s just a reading group and it’s very casual. What happens is: two or three of us sit on chairs in a very, very small theatre tent (about eight foot square, the fourth wall open to the outside), reading selected scenes among ourselves for enjoyment’s sake between 1.30–3pm each day (though today’s looking unlikely: the site’s under six inches of water). When people come, one of us whispers to them they can take a seat if they like. If they sit down they’re handed a copy of the play and shown the page we’re on. They’re invited to join in if they feel like it. Then they’re left alone. No explanations or sales pitch: the continuation of the reading is what matters; people can take it or leave it.
So far, especially yesterday, this has worked well. One or two City workers on their lunch break have come and sat down, eating a sandwich, reading the play as we continue the reading. When the two or three of us read, there are usually 2–3 main character parts in the extracts we’re doing, then a fourth or fifth character might enter, or be there already but not saying any lines until well into the extract. This is when ‘the miracle’ happens: very often the quiet new ‘guest’, be it a City worker, campsite person, whoever, will spontaneously read out that new part, therefore becoming part of the reading.
When the extract finishes, we all go ‘Phew! That was all right, wasn’t it?’ and we all grin and laugh and talk about how funny the play is. The City people who have been present often say they’ve seen the play in the West End and love it, or that they want to go and see it. The campsite people are very often unfamiliar with the play, and don’t know it’s currently very famous. It’s just ‘some play or other’ which, they discover, happens to be brilliant, funny as f***, completely apt for today and apt for their own situation. Anyone who’s not heard of the play but comes to a reading on spec seems to become an immediate convert. They know also they can come and join a reading any time they like, for as little or as long as they want.
Have to go now.
We hope to bring you further bulletins from Bill in due course…