Royal Exchange, Manchester.
7 November 2017.
Punks, queers, anarchists and firestarters. Derek Jarman’s 1978 film ‘Jubilee‘ is reimagined 40 years on by director Chris Goode for both the stage and a new generation.
This Millennial ‘Jubilee‘ clings pretty tightly to the messy narrative of the original. At her request, Queen Elizabeth (1.0) is taken on a trip into the future by her adviser John Dee. Accompanied by the spirit Ariel, they effortlessly stroll across time. Arriving in the present day, they find themselves plugged in to the lives of a girl gang and their acquaintances. Under a crown of grey street lights, the inhabitants of this world roar on to the stage – stripping off, waving guns and with a flaming pram in tow.
If you aren’t hung up on linear narratives and ready for a riotous ride of monologues, music, bits of storylines and lots of performance then this is a real treat. It’s as if Toyah Willcox’s Queen Elizabeth is hooked up to the group’s constantly updating social media feeds.
There’s an ominous edge to it. When Lucy Ellinson’s Ariel is summoned by John Dee, she doesn’t descend from the skies but from the upper gallery of the theatre. Her footsteps heavy and urgent as she runs down the stairs that loop around the outside of the auditorium. It’s like ever closer rumbles of thunder. That sense of a something brewing, of a gathering storm, lingers. In the audience it can often feel as if the chaos on stage is in danger of spilling out in to the aisles. The sex is inches away and the violence can be unnerving. The cast is cocky and fearless – they occupy this space. Graffiti covers every wall, action takes place in the galleries, characters lounge on the front row as well as on their squat’s shabby sofas. It’s hard to shake the feeling that we are tolerated guests on borrowed time.
In reality, we have nothing to fear but the words. The audience is taunted and teased, threatened with audience participation and labelled as being bourgeois. The post-punk generation is angrily confronted with the mess they’ve made of the world. Versions of history are challenged and rewritten, individual identities are asserted and struggles recognised. So many thoughts, stories, ideas, arguments and asides. A whirlwind of cultural references – Beyoncé, Fukuyama, Brexit and Cliff Richard’s laptop. I could watch it again and again just to catch another detail, join up more dots or see new perspectives. It’s done with anger, humour, disdain and generosity. Destructive and constructive. “Dystopia or utopia?” They rage and rave.
At times, snatches of words and chunks of speeches feel deeply personal for the performers as if the whole development process had been genuinely collaborative. The film’s original queer politics are brought bang up to date and the diverse cast add new perspectives to the mix. Goode and the company have created something defiantly celebratory – a joyous ‘fuck you’. It feels so relevant, so of its time that it can be easy to forget this is a performance. When the second half opens with a dance routine to M.I.A.’s ‘Bad Girls’ it could be an act of self-indulgent wish-fulfillment on the part of the cast and yet at the same time is totally in keeping with the characterisation and the ‘plot’.
What this ‘Jubilee‘ is not, is shocking. The warning signs about nudity and strong language feel superfluous. You can see scenes of a more sexual nature on reality television and hear similar language everyday on Manchester’s trams. The sex and nudity simply feel like an expression of freedom. While the production appears defiantly proud of losing some audience members at half time, it’s more likely that for every one of those who might have taken offence there will be more who struggled to stay engaged with the meandering nature of the story. What does unsettle is the violence. Some of it is accompanied by a nod and a wink, a stylised quick end. Other times there’s just cold-blooded brutality.
Film, ‘Jubilee’‘s original home, is dismissed as a “dying medium”. Goode seems determined to remind us that this is theatre by jokily exposing some of its mechanics. Amyl Nitrate (Travis Alabanza) advises that she’s too exhausted to speak after her monologue and points out that for the benefit of the show we’re supposed to be in a squat. The production also sketches out some sort of artistic manifesto. Rejecting the commercialisation of the art world, artist Viv focuses on creating something from nothing rather than making things to sell. Aspiring performer Kid is encouraged to embrace the DIY ethic to avoid being exploited by the entertainment industry.
Nearly the entire cast is appearing at the Exchange for the first time and they seem to revel in the space. For Yandass Ndlovu, who dazzles as Kid, it’s their first professional appearance after working with the Exchange’s Young Company. The performers exude a youthful arrogance and swagger and the production is all the better for it. Travis Alabanza in particular is electrifying. Their perfectly judged performance holds everything together, creating a bridge between the audience and the production. It’s a tricky task, required to sneer one moment and indulge in bad-tempered bonhomie the next, but they do it with disarming style. Sophie Stone brings a genuine menace to Bod, a stone cold heart at the centre of proceedings.
Since becoming the Royal Exchange’s Artistic Director, Sarah Frankcom has asked the audience to go on quite a journey with programming that’s been increasingly willing to experiment and take risks. Chris Goode’s riotous ‘Jubilee‘ feels like a significant milestone, as if a line has now been crossed and there can be no turning back.
While the show ends with a cross-generational moment of reconciliation – as Jarman’s original Mad from 40 years ago joins Temi Wilkey’s 21st century incarnation in a song – it’s largely uncompromising in its approach. What sticks in the mind is its angry despair. The belief that nothing seems to work, that the only answer might well be the apocalypse. Swirling, intricate and mercurial, Chris Goode’s ‘Jubilee‘ is a bleak beauty.