“Listen to me now. This blood, it’s valuable.” The audience holds its breath. Mark Rylance holds out trembling hands, dripping shining cherry-coloured liquid across the stage as he reaches towards the expressionless ten-year-old playing his son, Marky. “To doctors. Hospitals. Every six weeks, I go up Swindon General, and I give’ em a pint of my blood. And they give me six hundred pound. They need it, see, and I’m the only one they know’s got it.” Another pause. Rylance limps closer. “And when I sit in that waiting room, waiting to go in, they treat me like a king. I can sit there, with the other patients all around, and I can smoke, have a can, right there in front of the nurses. And they can’t touch me. People complain. They can’t touch me. They need me. See. They need me.” This is the moment that stuck with me after seeing the revival of Jez Butterworth’s ambling, anecdotal, and thoroughly entertaining Jerusalem. Sitting just a few moments from the end of the play’s final act, this is the scene that strips the sprawling three hour (two interval) production down to its core thesis, its foundational principle: laying bare a particular kind of English delusion thrown into stark light within the last six years.

Jerusalem was first published in 2009 and ran to roaring success in the West End the following year. In 2011, it achieved similarly rave reviews during its run on Broadway, which strikes me as surprising given the predominance of not only English references but also the highly regional South-West/Cotswolds humour that dominates the play. As a West country girl myself my personal favourite was the wry remark about BBC Points West about half way through:

DAVEY. Who can say these days. You ask me, BBC Points West has lost its way.
DAVEY. Points West used to be solid local news. First they’ve done the cuts, merged with Bristol, now it’s half the bloody country.

The two central cast members have remained the same throughout both these iterations (Rylance as the lead, Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron and MacKenzie Crook as his closest friend Ginger) and remain still in the current revival in London. An elderly couple sitting next to my boyfriend and me in the theatre told us enthusiastically during the intermission that they had seen the play in its previous iteration over ten years ago and were pleased to report that the two productions were virtually identical, and both very much enjoyed. I thought about this as we watched the final act. I had assumed for some reason that the original version of the revival we were watching had only been two or three years ago, but certainly not over ten. What thoughts this couple next to us, those original audiences, must have had from these same seats in the same theatre eleven years ago. How differently the play reads now. The fixation with an ancient national mythology and staunch resistance to modernity that characterises the text must have appeared comically entertaining to the outward facing London of 2011 – five years before the Brexit vote and looking forward to the 2012 Olympics. Now it all seems rather grimly prophetic.

Having said that, in a sense the text is timeless because the characters do not live so much in either decade of the 21st century as they do in a kind of vague suspended present which facilitates re-enactments of an imagined ancient, glorious past. The local St George’s Day fair is the temporal focus of the play and the point around which the rest of the characters’ calendars revolve, with several references to the St George’s Days of yore. Meanwhile, the sole physical focus of the performance is Rooster’s caravan out in the village woods, a place situated on “Ley lines”, a phenomenon which Lee describes as “lines of ancient energy, stretching across the landscape. Linking ancient sites. Like this one, the one you’ve got here goes … Avebury Standing Stones, through Silbury Hill, right down to Stonehenge, and on to Glastonbury. That ley line comes clean through here. We’re standing on it right now. Seriously. If you was a Druid, this wood is holy. This is holy land.” Holy land that defines its inhabitants,

LEE. You’re David Dean.
DAVEY. Yes, mate.
LEE. David Dean from Flintock.
DAVEY. Absolutely.
LEE. Nothing else.
DAVEY. Nothing but.
LEE. Never nothing else? Just David Dean.
DAVEY. Not ever. Not once

Forging an identity so strong it physically restrains them:
DAVEY. Rather you than me, mate. I’ve never seen the point of other countries. I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop. Seriously. I’m on my bike, pedalling along, see a sign says ‘Welcome to Berkshire’, I tum straight round. I don’t like to go east of Wootton Bassett.

Only Lee and his drastic oncoming voyage to Australia are the exception that prove the rule – and this is not a break undergone lightly.

“LEE. I don’t want to go.
DAVEY. Yes you do.
LEE. I don’t.
DAVEY. You do.
LEE. I fucking don’t.
DAVEY. Tough. You’re going. Yes you are.
LEE. Bollocks. You can’t make me.

His 6am coach to the airport hovers just beyond the horizon of the play, always just out of sight of both audience and character. It cannot escape the sense of being more theoretical than absolute.

This is because the play is not really concerned with efforts to escape from an identity so utterly enraptured with the English past. Instead, it is concerned with the consequence of its maintenance. Unlike so many other media concerned with the construction of modern British identity, Jerusalem is outwardly indifferent to much of 20th century English history. Yet the play reminded me of two quotes from and about the 20th century. Firstly, Margaret Thatcher’s address from her 1979 general election campaign: “Unless we change our ways and our direction, our greatness as a nation will soon be a footnote in the history books, a distant memory of an offshore island, lost in the mist of time like Camelot, remembered kindly for its noble past.” The woods of Jerusalem present precisely this idea of the modern Britain in miniature – physically isolated and utterly myopic. Cut off from the rest of the world, it can only echo its own mythology back to itself. Or else, as in the scene where the Professor character – high on acid – recites the myth of St George to an empty stage, to no one at all.

The second quote which came to mind derives from historian Patrick Wright in his discussion of Churchill’s insistence on Britain’s ‘finest hour’ during the Battle of Britain. The heritage of this rhetoric, he argues, is that “the nation is not seen as a heterogeneous society that makes its own history and moves forward however chaotically into the future. Instead, it is portrayed as an already achieved and timeless historical entity which demands only appropriate reverence and protection in the present.” This too is the world of the characters of Jerusalem. Maintaining an identity based on the preservation of the past while resisting attempts to “move, however chaotically into the future.” Indeed, this is the image that the audience is left with as the curtain falls: the bleeding Johnny Byron turning to face off against the South Wiltshire police to protect his ancient caravan in the holy woods, having aggravated them with his continued resistance to the new housing estates being built in the area.

When Byron holds out his bleeding hands to his son at the close of the text, he is reflecting all this and something new. The insistence on the value of the blood communates a firmly held idea of intrinsic value, of entrenched relevance created by the remnants of the perceived ‘finest hour’ – here not the Blitz, but an imagined pastoral past. It is a value so deep and fundamental that it cannot be altered by surface level changes. He can break all hospital conduct, yet still he is needed, still he is valued. At the end of the text, broken and drug addled, Byron can still insist on it. The scene illustrates the idea that some deeper sense of ‘Englishness’ ensures that those who bear it are always to be protected, always valued regardless of their actions. In these lines, I think of the insistence that after Britain left the EU we would be ‘front of the queue’ for international trade deals despite all evidence to the contrary. In it I see Oxford itself content to resist the tide of modernity and remain obstinate to demands of increasing university access well into the 20th century and continue to resolutely defend its failings on this front to this day. A belief in permanent prestige which alleviates the burden of cooperating with the 21st century. Byron goes to his uncertain fate armed with this belief, as does Britain.