King’s Head Theatre, London – until 3 September 2022
“Be astonishing” are the final words of this 75-minute distillation of the life, death, work and preoccupations of Derek Jarman, one of the most iconoclastic artists of the late 20th century. It’s an instruction to the audience to go out and live their best, unashamed, creative, original lives. Writer-performer Mark Farrelly and his director Sarah-Louise Young have clearly applied that exhortation to be astonishing to themselves too when crafting this intense yet playful piece of total theatre. What they’ve created is roaring, but delicate, ritualistic and totally unique.
Pitched somewhere between a celebration, a séance and an unusually engaging piece of performance art, Jarman eschews linear storytelling in favour of a sensory assault encompassing spoken word, music and direct audience engagement. Some of Jarman’s iconic film works are referenced – Sebastiane, Caravaggio, Edward II, The Tempest, the heartrending Blue which depicts the artist’s slide into blindness – and settings from Ken Russell’s chaotic movie shoots (Jarman designed several of his films) to Derek’s beloved, wall-less Dungeness garden are vividly evoked.
So too is the hedonistic pre-AIDS London gay scene of the 70s and 80s, in sequences that rival Jack Holden’s terrific Cruise play (about to return for a limited West End season) and TV’s It’s A Sin. It’s spare but extravagant, and extraordinarily life-affirming even as it looks death squarely in the face (Jarman died from an AIDS-related illness in 1994, aged just 54).
In a performance of such controlled brilliance that even his armpits seem to sweat on cue, Farrelly portrays the man in his prime – an outrageous force of nature but with an undertow of genuine warmth and kindness – then unflinchingly, and heartbreakingly shows him ravaged by disease. Crucially, it’s never sentimental, it’s just authentically tragic. Farrelly is an athletic, engaging stage presence with an unerring ability to connect with his audience at close quarters, and charisma to spare. I defy anybody to see this and not come away both as a fan of him, and determined to go away and read up about Derek Jarman.
The writing is beautiful, poetic and pungent, full of yearning and truth, and a sort of enraged elegance punctuated by genuine wit. Young’s sensational staging repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, and makes theatrical magic using the bare minimum of props – a sheet, a torch, some torn up paper – buoyed by Farrelly’s extraordinary central turn. Technically the show is flawless too, Farrelly and Young’s shape-shifting lighting transforming the King’s Head’s tiny auditorium into an Aladdin’s cave of possibilities and landscapes, and Tom Lishman’s complex, ingenious sound design contributing immeasurably to the overall impact.
Visceral and unmissable, and a history lesson dressed up as a great, sometimes harrowing, piece of entertainment, “astonishing” this most certainly is. One suspects Jarman would have loved it.