At 42, British playwright Jez Butterworth is too old to be promising and too young to be an eminence. But in his journeyman years, he has been tossing Molotov cocktails into theaters from the West End to Broadway, none less explosive than “Jerusalem,” which stands a good chance of walking off with the Tony Award for best play on June 12.
“Jerusalem” is set in the woods outside a growing British town and concerns a local irritant named Johnny “Rooster” Byron, played at the Music Box Theatre with astonishing life force by Mark Rylance.
A daredevil motorcyclist and fabulist gone wildly to seed, Rooster reigns over a ragtag bunch of mostly teenagers who drink, do drugs, have sex and generally carry on under his none-too-watchful eyes. He is distant kin to England’s original Angry Young Man, John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter.
The play, says Butterworth -- whose real first name is also my own -- was inspired in part by a pig farm he bought a few years back 200 miles west of London. We spoke at Bloomberg’s New York headquarters.
Gerard: I understand that “Jerusalem” was written at a fever pace.
Butterworth: Yes, the whole thing did take on a dreamlike quality. You don’t set out to write archetypes, to have a character line up with a really established idea, but Rooster kind of has done in a way that surprised me. He embodies a spirit of individuality and defiance that speaks to people beyond my intentions. I was just trying to tell a story.
Gerard: Rooster’s no paragon of virtue.
Butterworth: I don’t think that writers have any responsibility to be good neighbors to the audience. If we were to create characters that were supposed to appeal on that level, I think that people would be looking at their watches very soon.
It’s not my responsibility at all. Or you don’t end up with a play like “Macbeth.” Or you don’t end up with “Medea,” if the idea is that you wouldn’t want to live next door to Medea.
Gerard: The play is quintessentially British. How have you managed to win over the Broadway audience?
Butterworth: We had no idea that it wouldn’t just sail over audiences’ heads, because it is an English play, a long play, it’s hard to describe in a few words what it’s about. But we knew in early previews that we were having a similar effect to the one we had in London.
Here there are a lot more questions. No one ever asked me what the play was about in London. It never came up. And here it comes up an awful lot -- as if I’ve encoded something that they’re trying to crack.
Gerard: Six years ago you bought a pig farm in Somerset. Has that influenced your work?
Butterworth: Way beyond what I expected. If you’re going to raise a creature, get to know it, nurture it, watch it grow and then kill it, and witness that -- which I did and do every time, I go along and watch the slaughter of the animal --it has a profound effect on you. You realize that behind every simple exchange of food is this death, if you’re going to eat meat.
I was a vegetarian for almost 10 years before this, and getting connected to animal husbandry, to actually seeing, to participate in that process, shocked me in ways I don’t think I’ve fully come to terms with.
“Jerusalem” is running at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; http://www.telecharge.com.
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)