Forty years on, the Silver Jubilee year of punk and pageantry seems an increasingly mysterious and distant time. Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee epitomised the way that the underground lurched into the mainstream and, just for a moment, the freaks were in charge. At least, that’s one version of the story.
In a test of the contemporary meaning and relevance of such myth-making, Chris Goode has adapted Jubilee for the stage. Taking on such a notorious chaotic film is an act of sink-or-swim bravura. Fortunately, although it is hard to measure Jubilee by conventional markers of stage success, this production achieves something distinctive, becoming a piece of event theatre and an affirmation of alternative culture a generation on.
Questions could certainly be asked of Jubilee. The Lyric has gone to considerable trouble to insert a new, smaller auditorium inside its existing theatre, with much of the audience seated on the stage on either side of the performers. It’s a shame then that Goode, who also directs, delivers a production much better suited to the proscenium stage it is attempting to subvert.
However, where the production falls short, the audience steps in. It is hard to tell where the punks, anarchists and queers on stage stop and the audience begins, especially when, for example, the woman in a jumpsuit and centurion’s helmet with full crest in the front row turns out not to be in the play. There is a beautiful synchronicity between Jubilee and the people who want to see it, who are the real thing, unlike the performers they are watching. This is almost enough justification for the play on its own. However, it does have plenty more to offer.
Jarman’s film blended the occult with subversive history, domestic terrorism and resistance to oppression. Elizabeth I (Toyah Wilcox) commands John Dee to conjure up angels, and we are transported to a 1977 squat. Mad, Wilcox’s part in the original film now played by the machine gun-wielding Temi Wilkey, commands the audience: “Alright you motherfuckers, listen up!” The MC is “England’s last remaining hope and glory”, drag queen Amyl Nitrate, played by the commanding Travis Alabanza.
From here on in it’s all about the atmosphere and not so much about plot, although a cohort of anarchist revengers including Mads, Crabs and Amyl do murder a couple of representatives of the male, normative hegemony. There is cheerful chaos throughout, very much in the spirit of the film, but also a self-consciousness that prevents a simple nostalgia exercise. Everything is updated, and phones and Youtube feature, while the punk look is less safety pins and more 21st century cyber. Some aspects of this experiment work well, such as the alternative history being written by Mad, without kings, queens and the powerful, which seems no less relevant now than forty years ago. On the other hand, the squat setting for the play seems a relic from a different era, when property was cheap and unwanted.
‘Jubilee’ is an uneven experience by its nature, but the success of the evening can be judged in the reaction of the audience. It was made for them, and they love it. Intentionally or not, Goode has tapped into a desire for alternative political expression which can, at the very least, fill a theatre and bring a generation who were there the first time around out alongside a generation still shaping its equivalent.