It is always a marked occasion when Mermaids stage productions at the Byre and Jerusalem did not dwindle against the vast expectations that the space expects.Al Gillespie’s production of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem was charged to a multifocal and bright stage. Wild drapes fell from the rafters and an amalgamation of tents, alcohol, and spray paint decorated the stage as the forest that Rooster Byron grasps onto until the end.
Butterworth’s play questions the pride of England’s green and pleasant land. Within a myriad of drunken revelry and searching for place – the familiarities of English teenage years – the morning of St. George’s Day rises on Flintock County Fair. The Kennet and Avon council move in on Johnny “Rooster” Byron, local reprobate and Pied Piper. Council officials are sent to serve Byron an eviction notice: a premature obituary for his woodland Babylon of drugs and alcohol.
Johnny “Rooster” Byron (Hannah Ritchie) is joined by Ginger (Helena Jacques-Morton), Lee (Eleanor Burke), Davey (Miles Hurley), the Professor (Sebastian Allum), Tanya (Valentine Moscovici), Pea (Sarah Chamberlain) and Wesley (Olli Gilford). Ritchie commanded the space, confidently projecting the façade of Byron through his fastidious tales of old and accompanying limp. Ritchie and Jacques-Morton presented the intricacies of the fractured relationship between supposed friends Byron and Ginger with subtle gentility. Burke was comfortable and earned the empathy of the full audience as the most outwardly reflective character.Gilford revelled in his comic role as Wesley, all the while mastering the fine line between the humour and pity required. Of the rest, Hurley, Moscovici and Chamberlain were all assured in the easy, jovial chemistry within the entire cast.
The dynamism of Rooster’s character lies beyond the flamboyance of his exterior. Brutal despair clots the fantasy of his tales and shadows his command over the crowd that frequents his hovel. This pain is perpetrated through the distance that lingers between Rooster and the others, especially Ginger. This is a separation that ultimately renders a deep solitude, even in company.
Age is a decisive wall between Rooster and the teenagers, aggravated to the audience by the introduction of Byron’s son Marky (Becky Matthew) who is brought to the woods by his mum to be taken to the fair. This physical disparity unfortunately cannot come across in a student production. Yet Ritchie led the cast in a performance that captured the nuanced co-dependence and aimlessness shared between the characters.
When Troy Whitworth (Eilidh Mackinnon) treats Byron with a cricket bat upon discovering him dancing with his missing daughter Phadera (Caitlin Morris) almost three hours of theatre have already passed. It is testament to the cast’s performance that the audience was still holding on for the end, and for Ritchie’s last cries: “Come you drunken spirits. Come, you battalions. You fields of ghosts who walk these green plains still. Come, you giants!”
Hugh M Casey