“We should all be angry. Why aren’t we angry all the time?”
Derek Jarman’s classic punk film Jubilee was released in 1977. I hated it. Bewildered and repelled in equal measure, I just didn’t ‘get it’. Forty years on, I find myself sitting in the Royal Exchange theatre to watch Chris Goode’s stage adaptation. Although aware of a definite sense of trepidation, I am also excited at the prospect of a ‘free-spirited, gloriously rude, take-no-prisoners blast of a show’ (as the publicity describes it).
The pre-set establishes an almost magical mood, and the dissonant elements signal that this production intends to be faithful to Jarman’s original, bewildering vision; the theatre is adorned with graffiti and a strange, ghostly, wordless singing echoes around the space. ‘Queen Elizabeth’ (played by Torah Wilcox) sits at a desk, peering into a vanity mirror while a shabby mattress lies stranded on the floor nearby.
The first scene involves a Shakespearian exchange between the Queen and her advisor, in which the angel Ariel is invoked and appears on the stairs, dressed in true punk attire and hair-style. Then, as they withdraw to survey what follows from the First Gallery, some 1970s-type streetlights descend from the ceiling and the main characters explode onto the stage; ‘Mad’, toting her gun, ‘Angel’ and ‘Sphinx’ (two brothers) who immediately strip each other naked and roll around incestuously on the shabby mattress, and ‘Crabs’, revelling in a shopping trolley. It is loud and wild and angry and ‘in-yer-face’ – and dares us to be offended or shocked or amused or exhilarated (or all of the above.) So far, so Derek Jarman. But it is the introduction of Travis Alabanza’s ‘Amyl Nitrate’ that brings Jarman’s Jubilee into 2017. Throughout the show, Alabanza delivers some blistering political diatribes, reflecting on last forty years with icy panache and passion. Addressing the audience directly, it is also she who introduces self-awareness into the proceedings, fully acknowledging the irony of this celebration of punk anarchy and vitriol being unleashed on a polite, middle-class theatre audience.
Self-awareness becomes a major feature of the show: we are constantly made aware that what we are watching is make-believe – is ‘play’ in the literal sense. The impact of this is double-edged. On the one hand, it provides many of the most amusing moments: asked for his name, Crabs’ new lover tells her, “I’m just called Second Cop.” On the other hand, Jubilee is about alienation, anger, violence, lust, chaos etc., and the intended rawness of these themes feels undermined by the repeated reminders that this is ‘just theatre’.
And despite its ironic self-awareness, I can’t shake off the feeling that Goode’s Jubilee isn’t actually clear about what it wants to do and how it wants the audience to feel. Obviously, it wishes to maintain the punk tradition, and this is reflected in the no-holds-barred, ‘‘gloriously rude’ and thoroughly violent elements of the show, as well as the caustic social and political commentary. But there are also more straightforward ‘let’s entertain’ elements; for example, the funky dance routine and the amiable post-interval audience interaction (“Are you having a lovely time?” asks Alabanza of a man in the third row.) Again, these are very enjoyable moments, but the swings between a defiant, punk ‘f*** you!’ and an engaging ‘please love me!’ approach end up making the show feel messy and confusing.
Goode, however, celebrates Jubilee’s ‘messiness’ – indeed, he argues that messiness is an essential part of its oppositional potency. So I doubt he will lose much sleep to learn that, after his stage adaptation, I feel as bewildered as when I saw the original film. That said, I do feel somewhat less repelled. Perhaps this is because, in the current political environment, a play which showcases anger seems more than timely. Or perhaps the punk ‘edge’ of Jarman’s Jubilee is sufficiently softened in this stage version that I am able to look past the nihilism and random violence and to appreciate some of the insights and ironies – as well as to enjoy the sheer spectacle of a cast which is clearly having a fantastic time.