As is so often the case, the misfortune begins with a new housing estate. It is created on the edge of the forest where Johnny Byron lives. He lives in a caravan in a clearing near the town of Flintock, an outlaw who has long since left the meritocracy and exploitation mentality. Byron gets into fights, is banned from the pubs, and claims he’s dumped half the town. And he distributes drugs to the village youth. The residents of the settlement don’t want something like that in their front yard and protest, Byron still has a few hours to vacate the space, otherwise it will be vacated.
This is how the play “Jerusalem” by the British playwright Jez Butterworth begins, with which director André Bücker opens the season at the Staatstheater Augsburg. Premiered in 2009 and then hailed as one of the best plays of the 21st century, ‘Jerusalem’ has been running and is running again in London’s West End, starring Mark Rylance, and on Broadway. Bücker really wanted the piece and negotiated a German-language premiere for his house. So ask: is it really that great?
Byron is a fantastic storyteller, dazzling center
Short answer: Not unlimited, but you can do it. In 2009 the world was different Great Britain was still in the EU, the Prime Minister was David Cameron and a Queen resided in Buckingham Palace. By the way, “Jerusalem” means the patriotic piece of music with lyrics by William Blake, which is about how Jesus is said to have visited Great Britain. The play is a well-made play about the British working class, reminiscent of the lyrics of angry young men such as John Osborne’s “Look back in Anger” from 1956. However, Jez Butterworth has repeatedly emphasized that it is not a state of the nation play wanting to have written it, nevertheless he locates it clearly in the 90s, everyone Spice Girls got laid byron
Johnny Byron himself, as the name suggests, is a fantastic storyteller and the dazzling, fragile center of the play. Once upon a time he was a stuntman, skipped a motorcycle, no joke, even Stonehenge. Actor Sebastian Müller-Stahl plays him with the tense physicality of a tense junkie, who always looks stupidly distant, after an accident he drags a lame leg behind him. A hopeless one.
His teenage fans lick the coke out of his hand and celebrate him as the party king and ripper. One wonders why now should be the compelling moment for such a testosterone-charged piece. A play in which the female characters remain pale. Have you seen it all very often?
Beneath all the bawling is a deep sadness
In any case, the actors in Augsburg start with an extremely high level of energy, which can then no longer be increased and remains the same for four hours. They romp and screech across the littered forest clearing (designed quite naturally by Jan Steigert) and this playfulness is often great fun to watch, but you can only really spin freely if you were reasonably grounded beforehand. In his production, which is strictly based on the original, director André Bücker generally gives away the nuance that is in the text and that would be necessary to understand what or who made Byron this broken figure. The staging always seems too focused on laughter, where there is also a deep sadness.
What else will “Jerusalem” say in 2022? It is this: Byron’s Glade is the least hopeless place in a hopeless world. It’s not just the place where the village youth doesn’t reprimand anyone after they’ve been drunk. It is the place where they are allowed to keep their narrow dreams alive, while the viewer has long suspected that it is already too late for many of them. When a young girl goes missing, the local May Queen, everyone suspects she is hiding with Byron. Possibly, because in his world she can stay queen a little longer. To claim that this is lived utopia is far too romanticized and also wrong, the dialogues are brutal (greatly translated by Michael Raab), the handling is rough, there is no tenderness. And the stupidity of stoned people has nothing touching. Yet Byron’s Glade in its anarchy is an in-between place where absolutely nothing needs to be usable. At least for a moment.