Whilst I finished off teaching Chaucer, members of my lower-sixth Pre-U class have been busy choosing topics for their personal investigations. 


‘So, have you chosen what you’re going do, then?’ I asked one bright-eyed young brainbox after another lesson spent discussing the significance of Januarie’s garden in The Merchant’s Tale.


‘The countryside as a space for subversive comedy,’ she replied chirpily.


‘Better read Northrop Frye and C.L. Barber,’ I murmured eruditely. ‘And what texts are you going to write about?’


‘Definitely As You Like It.’


‘Oh, how funny! I’m going to watch As You Like It next week!’ I exclaimed surprised. ‘We’re all going together—the whole English Department—we’ve all got tickets for the Globe. What else are you going to write about, then?


The Importance of Being Earnest,’ beamed my student.


‘Why The Importance of Being Earnest?’


‘I like The Importance of Being Earnest.’


‘I like The Importance of Being Earnest, too,’ I replied a trifle dubiously, ‘but it's not the best example of Wilde’s subversive comedy: A Woman of No Importance and The Ideal Husband are much more obviously subversive, but they’re neither of them set in the country. I guess there’s the business of being Jack in the country and Earnest in the city. Is that the kind of thing you’d got in mind?’


‘Uh huh,’ she nodded brightly.


'What else are you going to write about, then?’


‘Not sure yet, but I’ve got one or two ideas.’


‘How about The Merry Wives of Windsor?’ I proposed.


‘I was thinking more of A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ she countered.


It was my turn to nod. ‘Good choice. I love A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’


‘Me, too, but I don’t want it all do be about Shakespeare.’


We contemplated the problem in silence for a moment. ‘Do you know what I reckon you should do?’ I exclaimed, gripped by a sudden inspiration. ‘I reckon you should look at that play I told you about yesterday in class—the one I went to see last week—Jerusalem! That’s what I reckon you should write about! Jerusalem is pretty damn’ subversive and it’s set in the country. Let me get my copy and let’s read a bit together.’


And so, after a brief foray to the English office, I returned to read with a 17-year-old schoolgirl the hilariously filthy opening monologue in which Johnny Byron explains why he failed to text his friend, Ginger, to tip him off about the previous night’s drunken festivities. According to Johnny, it was all the fault of ‘all five of the birds off of Girl Aloud’ turning up at his caravan:

They’ve got a case of Super T, two hundred Rothmans. Five Mars bars. I try to slam the door but they bum-rush me clean across the kitchenette and onto the bed. Nicky guards the door while Kimberley, Nadine, what’s-her-name and the one go to work. Three hours. Unspeakable acts. 


Finally, Johnny explains, he manages ‘to slide out from under’ Cheryl Code and the ‘bottom of the scrum, into the bog, grab my mobile’. But before he could text Ginger, ‘the door flies in, and the rest is history.’ 


‘But don’t worry. We saved you one,’ Johnny winds up, as he tosses a Mars Bar to the hapless Ginger.

Of course, all of this was a long way from Cecily’s garden and Wilde’s delightfully frothy tale of mislaid handbags, cucumber sandwiches, confabulating teenage diarists, muddle-headed governesses, and Bunburying lovers. But that, I concluded sagely, was the whole point of the comparison.


Moreover, it seemed to me, on reflection, my clever student had got things the wrong way around: in The Importance of Being Earnest, wickedness belongs to the city and innocence to the country, and it is the sudden, unexpected appearance of Algernon from the city that brings subversion and disorder into the secluded lives of Cecily and Miss Prism. As Jack observes to Algernon, ‘When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people. It is excessively boring.’


The closest The Importance of Being Earnest comes to either the green world of Shakespearean comedy or to the boozy, drug-addled countryside of Jerusalem is the garden of a manor house. And as my student should have recalled from our study of The Merchant’s Tale, a garden is an enclosed, circumscribed space: a place where nature can be tamed, and where desire can be may be walled up and held captive under lock and key. A garden is less an arena for subversion than a place where the anarchic energy of nature can be ordered and controlled. Or at least that is the intention until the serpent slips in unseen to make a little mischief and raise a little hell.

'A garden is less an arena for subversion than a place where the anarchic energy of nature can be ordered and controlled. Or at least that is the intention until the serpent slips in unseen to make a little mischief and raise a little hell.'


As you’ll see if you stick with this essay, there’s no mystery why I was so intrigued by the idea of comparing Jerusalem with The Importance of Being Earnest and the green world of Shakespeare’s comedies, mainly because it so closely fits in with my own recent experiences in the classroom, in the theatre, and in the pages of my own writing. And provided I don’t get fired for introducing a 17-year-old schoolgirl to Jez Butterworth’s gloriously filthy and anarchic comedy, these three points should allow us to triangulate the landscape as we survey the place of the country in English comedy. 


Let’s turn to the first two sides of the triangle, for by a delightful accident of fate, when I dove down to Newbury’s Watermill Theatre to check out Pocketsize Theatre’s production of Jerusalem the genteel space of the English garden and the wilder country inhabited by Rooster Byron collided with one another in glorious incongruity.


When I finally arrived in Bagnor, a sleepy little hamlet in the heart of the Berkshire Downs, I discovered a tastefully converted Victorian mill surrounded by manicured lawns and elegantly clipped box: there were herbaceous borders and sweet-smelling lavender bushes, red-brick paths and shady patios, babies play with their yummy mummies in the sun, and smiling pensioners making their way out from the salad buffet, chatting about the special offers in Waitrose and their grandchildren’s school fees. I drank a glass of Prosecco under the weeping willow trees, stared out across the twinkling mill pond, and thought to myself, Life doesn’t get any more pleasant—or any more middle-class—than this! 


Such a cultivated environment would, of course, have provided the ideal habitat for The Importance of Being Earnest, but the theatre was occupied by an altogether wilder, shaggier beast. The stage was occupied by a beaten-up old caravan, officials from Kennet and Avon Council appeared in hi-vis jackets to photograph the site and to serve their eviction notice, and on the other side of the door was Rooster Byron, barking at order and authority and introducing himself as Shep. 


A moment later, the old dog burst up through the roof of the caravan to serve notice on the council, bellowing obscenities through a loud hailer: 

Here ye, here ye. With the power invested in me by Rooster Johnny Byron—who can’t be here on account of the fact he’s in Barbados this week with Kate Moss—I, his faithful hound Shep, hereby instruct Kennet and Avon to tell Bren Glewstone, and Ros Taylor, and her twat son, and all the sorry cunts on the New Estate, Rooster Byron ain’t going nowhere. Happy St George’s Day! Now kiss my beggar arse, you Puritans!’


Johnny shoved a finger up at the blue-rinsed audience at the Watermill; Cecily dropped her rose basket; dotty Miss Prism fainted into the arms of a willing Dr Chasuble; Jack Worthing wrote a strongly worded letter to The Times; and Algernon choked on his cucumber sandwich, as he guffawed with the rest of us at the wild Dionysiac energy of black-eyed Johnny Byron. Here was our latter-day Lord of Misrule, a wild thing willing to fighting tooth and nail for his right to party and intent on stronger meat than was on offer that spring morning at the Flintock village fair. And with that the rumpus began.


Jez Butterworth’s 2009 play is brilliantly, outrageously funny: it is as foul-mouthed as Withnail & I and as grounded in the realities of rural life as BBC3’s recent TV mockumentary, This Country. But Jerusalem is a play with deep roots: it opens with the 15-year-old Queen of the Flintock Fair, Phaedra Cox, resplendent in her homemade carnival costume with its pink fairy wings, singing the words of Blake’s great mystical vision of ‘Englands green & pleasant land’ to the accompaniment of a folk accordion. 


Yes, Johnny’s caravan in Byron Wood provides a haven for runaway teenagers, pikey ne’er-do-wells and blitzed ravers, all of whom come clamouring to his door for booze and beats, casual sex and cheap whizz. But in the course of three hours, we learn of Johnny Byron’s heroic past as a daredevil rider, leaping buses and returning to life after being declared dead after crashing his motorbike; we are told of his miraculous virgin birth, after a jealous bullet passed through the balls of his philandering father and lodged in a sweet 16-year-old’s tender womb; and we hear of Johnny’s conversation with the giant who built Stonehenge. Jerusalem occupies the same mythic England as Blake and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as old broadsheet ballads and the ancient romances of Arthur and Avalon.


The sworn enemy of Johnny Byron is the New Estate. We all know this place: it is where ‘Englands past-ures green’ have been enclosed within privet hedges; where fairies have petrified into garden gnomes; and where the anarchic spirit of carnival has been tamed to a village fête where you can pay a few quid to chuck sponges at the vicar. It is a place where taxes are paid, by-laws are respected, and the worst depravity that can be imagined is to run through a wheat field with a high-spirited future prime minister.


But even as the forces of bourgeois conformity and suburban gentrification close in, they are periodically pulled into the wild maelstrom of Johnny's perpetual party. Hence, the landlord of one of the local pubs turns up in a beribboned Morris man’s costume, intent on remonstrating with the old reprobate. But minutes later said publican is scoring a line of cocaine to get him through the public humiliation of participating in the display of Morris dancing the brewery has compelled him to lay on at the fair.


'But it is not only the rituals of the seasons and the escape from the cold dead hand of law and conformity that tie the Shakespearean green world to Flintock Fair, St George’s Day, and the tall tales and hedonistic freedom of Johnny Byron.'

Pocketsize Theatre’s revival of Jerusalem could hardly be faulted, with Peter Caulfield excellent as Ginger and Jasper Britton magnificent as Johnny. But the same could not be said of the Globe’s production of As You Like It, which it is fair to say divided opinion—at least, amongst the members of our English Department. A couple in our party thought it was ‘crap’ and left at half-time; others thought it was ‘a bit too clever’, but stuck it out to the bitter end; one thought it was ‘brave’ and loved it; and I thought it was so weird I was never quite sure whether I had nodded off and was lost in a particularly bonkers dream. The problem with this dream, to my mind, was that it had no correspondence with any of the desires I might secretly harbour in my relentlessly heterosexual, monotonously male breast and wish to see actualised on stage.


In defence of Federay Holmes’ and Elle While’s vision of Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy, nobody could accuse this production of playing safe: believe me, this As You Like It was subversive to a fault. But on the other side of the argument, there’s a big difference between being ‘inventive and subversive’, and ‘throwing everything but the kitchen sink’ at a script. In this production, Rosalind (Jack Laskey) was a strapping six-foot-something man; Orlando was a tiny pocket-sized woman with an impish smile and a bushy bob (Bettrys Jones); and Celia (Nadia Nadarajah) was deaf and signed her lines to the other characters, who were then charged with interpreting her words to the audience. If this was not enough, all the baddies in the court of Duke Frederick doubled as the goodies in the Forest of Arden; Jacques (Pearce Quigley) was a lugubrious Welsh hippy-turned-lounge-lizard in a velvet suit; and when Hymen came on at the end, she wore stag’s horns and a huge wedding gown made out of four long streamers and was hoist up through a trapdoor in the ceiling in her bloomers. 


It was a very strange show, and to be entirely honest, I can’t say I enjoyed it. But this was at least partly because I was struggling with a heavy summer cold and partly because I have never really been a fan of As You Like It: any plot whose denouement hangs on learning that one villain was rescued from an off-stage lioness and the other villain repented after being questioned off-stage by ‘an old religious man’ can justly be said to rely on at least two dei ex machina too many. For Northrop Frye, the action of Shakespearean comedy ‘begins in a world represented as a normal world, moves into the green world, goes into a metamorphosis there in which the comic resolution is achieved, and returns to the normal world.’ To my mind, the problem with As You Like It is obvious: the resolution of the plot does not rely upon any metamorphosis to which the audience is privy or that the movement into green world has worked to achieve. In short, the plot’s a mess.


But Frye’s analytical description of Shakespearean comedy yields much more intriguing results when it is applied to Jerusalem. For Jez Butterworth’s play starts in the green world and concludes with the imminent destruction of this world. Rooster Byron, we soon see, is a character incapable of change, a man who refuses to allow his world to metamorphose: hence, Byron ends the play bloodied and branded by the jealous father of Phaedra Cox and awaiting the invasion of his green world by the bulldozers of bourgeois normality. 

falstaff 1.jpeg

'But we should remember that once the holiday was over, the Lord of Misrule paid for his usurpation of normality and rightful authority by becoming himself the butt of mockery and an object of ritual humiliation.' 

My final excursion into the green world of English comedy was actually provided by an Italian, for a couple of days after our works outing to the Globe, I made my way to Covent Garden to watch Falstaff. This is the opera Verdi wrote in his last years based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, and though this comedy lacks the show-stopping musicality of La Traviata or the dramatic intensity of Otello or Macbeth, it is a madly entertaining romp that succeeds time and again in delivering big laughs. Robert Carson’s production sets the tale of Falstaff’s ill-advised courtship of Alice and Meg in a Technicolor 1950s world of New Look dresses, Formica kitchens, and country house hotels. Maybe this weakens the ties to the mythic realm of the Shakespearean green world, but it was certainly a hoot from start to finish. Sir Bryn Terfel was as brilliant as ever in the lead and Ana Maria Martinez, Marie McLaughlin and Marie-Nicole Lemieux made for very merry, and impeccably musical, wives to give the old rogue a hard time during his ill-starred stay in Windsor forest.


For all his sleazy philandering and hapless duplicity, Falstaff is impossible to dislike, as he too represents a joyous rejection of puritanical morality and drab normality. Falstaff’s mountainous stomach, and his insatiable appetite for the fleshly pleasures of sex and sack and sleep and capons, inevitably remind one of the ‘grotesque body’ and Rabelaisian carnivalesque of Bakhtin. As C.L. Barber observes, Falstaff combines the role of the Vice of the mediaeval morality play, scorning morality and laughing at human weakness, with the role of Lord of Misrule, who was appointed to preside over profane and subversive merry-making and the world-turned-upside festivities of carnival. But we should always remember that once the holiday was over, the Lord of Misrule paid for his usurpation of normality and rightful authority by becoming himself the butt of mockery and an object of ritual humiliation. Thus, in the course of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Falstaff is tossed into the Thames after being persuaded to hide in a basket of filthy washing and is tricked into disguising himself as the ghost of ‘Herne the hunter,/ Sometime a keeper here in Windsor forest’, who at ‘still midnight,/ Doth all the winter-time/ Walk round about an oak, with great ragg'd horns.’


The parallels with Jerusalem are, I think, fascinating and revealing. Like Falstaff, Johnny is oblivious to time and change, contemptuous of duty and authority, dedicated only to the illicit pleasures of pubs and parties, but he finishes Butterworth’s play powerless and humiliated—but there is nothing funny in the sacrifice of Rooster Byron at the end of his decades-long carnival. For, with the defeat of Byron so too falls the green world over which he has ruled as an outlaw prince. Nor is Johnny Byron like Duke Senior, who is returned to his rightful estate after his sojourn in the Forest of Arden: when Johnny Byron’s caravan is bulldozed, he has nowhere else to go. The comedic Lord of Misrule has morphed into a tragic hero—a ruined monarch dispossessed of his kingdom, like poor mad Lear—and all Byron can do at the end of the play is to beat the drum he claims will raise the ancient giants in defence of old England.


'So, I finish my essay, by banging the same drum that Johnny Byron beats at the end of Jerusalem. We need to summon the giants from their sleep, for without the green world of old England, the only alternative space to cold, hard morality and drab, suburban normality is hell.' 


In my previous blog, I wrote about the imaginative appeal of hell as a place of liberty, a rebel nation established in defiance of morality and order. Of course, hell can exist imaginatively within the confines of the city, as we sense whenever the hoodlums and hard nuts of the ghetto become the antiheroes of rap songs and gangster movies. But it seems to me another archetype of liberty is provided by the green world of Shakespeare’s festive comedies and by the dilapidated caravan of the gypsy, Johnny Byron. Certainly, we need a space much wilder and wider than Cecily’s garden to provide the dream world in which our desires can roam free. This was undoubtedly my intention in attempting to write Rainbows End, a musical comedy about fairies living in a basement flat in Lewisham. 


So, I finish my essay banging the same drum that Johnny Byron beats at the end of Jerusalem. We need to summon the giants from their sleep, for without the green world of merry England, the only alternative space to cold, hard morality and drab, suburban normality is hell. And maybe fairies and giants, lecherous old knights and cross-dressing outlaws, make for more amusing company than devils.