Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The Theatre and Films of Jez Butterworth

Theatre Critic Book

David Ian Rabey , Bloomsbury , March 30, 2018
Theatre Critic Book by David Ian Rabey Rhug, in the upper valley of the Dee, has a well-known landmark, Wales' only public sculpture of a bison. On a blank-coloured Sunday in January I found myself in the car park, near the bison, in impromptu discussion with the owner of a neighbouring car. If the subject was writer Jez Butterworth it was not so surprising. Wales is small and companionate. The main routes in the north are few and five A-roads meet at Rhug. The conversation had a prompt, the other traveller being author of the only book-length study of Jez Butterworth. The book was published a couple of years ago and noted at the time as one to read. The accidental encounter was prompt to do just so.

Jez Butterworth and Martin McDonagh are both writers at the top of the tree and share things in common. Born a year apart, March 1969 and March 1970, they were successful at a young age. Butterworth's “Mojo” (1995) was the first debut play in a generation to be performed on the main stage of the Royal Court. McDonagh was at the National Theatre by the age of 27. Both have moved to span successfully theatre and film. Both have been the subject of a particular criticism. The 1990's McDonagh trilogy was critiqued for an inauthenticity in its rendering of Ireland. An Irishman from Elephant and Castle was felt not to be the real thing.

A similar criticism is fired, a generation on, at “the Ferryman.” The critics adore it, the online world less so. Voices of Ireland condemn it as inauthentic. At the extreme its audiences are damned as complacent know-nothings, Brits who would return its border setting to the status of bandit country it held for so long. The critiques are probably true but they point to a paradox. “The Ferryman” is a theatre work of magnificence. Its formal qualities awe, its climax devastates. At the same time magnificence need not necessarily embrace authenticity. Returning to McDonagh, his Ebbing, Missouri is not a study in documentary accuracy.

David Rabey addresses this aesthetic ambivalence early on in his crisp, lucidly written study. Just as the map is not the territory, the world on stage is not the world outside. Rabey locates the right critical voice, one which is particularly appropriate for Butterworth. In “Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy” (1995) Naomi Conn Liebler writes: “What is represented is not a “real” community, any more than the characters are“real” people. They are representational models designed to express the complex relations of an exemplary society whose story is frozen for examination purposes at a particular moment in its fictionalised history.” In extrapolation this means that a critical approach to “Jerusalem”, says Rabey, is different from an approach to Edward Bond. The book uses the phrase “political formalism” for Bond.

Rabey is a university authority on theatre who is interested in theatre as drama, art even. He does not approach theatre as a vehicle to exemplify theories from Walter Benjamin or Guy Debord. He cites the good writing voices who were there in an auditorium to see plays performed by actors. He quotes from Aleks Sierz, Nicholas de Jongh, John Nathan, John Peter. Susanna Clapp has interesting things to say on director Ian Rickson. Charles Spencer is there for three hours of Johnny Byron in “Jerusalem” and simply sees “one of the greatest performances I have ever witnessed.” These critical voices add flavour and richness to the book.

The critic is a first draughtsman of history's judgement. The university voice, a good one at least, takes judgement to a next plane. “The Theatre and Films of Jez Butterworth” was written before “the Ferryman”. One of its fascinations is how its assessment of the continuity in the Butterworth oeuvre prefigures the epic of 2017. Good writers also give insight in providing context and making connections. Rabey cites another strong academic voice who does drama. Michael Mangan recalls the vestigial pagan figures who overhang the work. No other dramatist is haunted in the same way by the Green Man or the Summer King, the Trickster or the fool-king.

The book reveals a key influence on “Mojo” to be a Karel Reisz film, “We are the Lambeth Boys”. A critical contrast is made with David Hare's “Teeth 'n' Smiles”. The shadow of Beckett is everywhere in theatre. Rabey points to a difference; the shambling duo in “the Night Heron” discover decisiveness. The theme of sacrifice links Butterworth to David Rudkin's “Afore Night Come” and as far back as Sophocles. “Jerusalem” is revealed as gradual in its making. Discussions with Ian Rickson and Mark Rylance mattered. Butterworth went to Ted Hughes, the “tougher, fiercer poems”.

The chapter “Fairy Tales of Hard Men” digs deepest as to why Butterworth commands the theatre of today. The work is about “frictions between members of a community who have conflicting senses of entitlement.” It is no surprise that the setting of County Armagh called. The Edgelands, to which Rabey refers, are locations that unsettle. The themes are “the rituals, transformations and sacrifices by which the male gender distinctively attempts to negotiate development and meaning.” The results are inevitable in plays that “examine the messages men hear about what is traditionally expected of them”. These edicts “prove fragile, restrictive, self-contradictory, self-defeating and self-destructive”.

In the book's aim to unify the work thematically Rabey pinpoints “a consistent, but increasingly overt and central, purposeful mythic quality”. In his last action Quinn Carney, combining self-realisation and self-destruction, becomes suddenly and dramatically Hamlet . The title of the book is revealing. Its theme is the theatre, not the plays, of the author. A new opportunity for an audience to make its own judgement occurs this summer. “Jerusalem” receives its first revival at the Watermill.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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