Theatre Review: Jubilee (Lyric Hammersmith)

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Jubilee
Lyric Theatre
Based on the screenplay by Derek Jarman and James Whaley
Adapted and directed by Chris Goode

Reviewer: Tom Baker

The history of punk has been retold so many times there’s very little radicalism left in what was apparently an anarchic movement which sought to burn down the established order of things. The heritage tours of 1977 London provided by MOJO articles and BBC Four documentaries reiterate the same cliched stories, and focus almost solely on the same cadre of angry, white, male bands. It’s this blinkered vision of punk’s beginnings that makes Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee, now adapted for the stage by Chris Goode, former Artistic Director of Camden People’s Theatre, such a startling document.

Shot during the period, on location in deprived parts of the capital that looked genuinely post-apocalyptic, with actors drawn from the punk scene (who largely handled their own costume and make-up duties) the film suggests a scene that was far more diverse, queer and gender-fluid than the hoary old anecdotes about John Lydon and the Buzzcocks imply. The stage adaptation goes even further with its exploration of diversity, and oppression along lines of class as well as identity, topics which haven’t exactly become less relevant in the intervening years.

There are token references to contemporary topics like Fake News, trans rights, Brexit, the Iraq War, and a set bearing graffiti referencing the myriad forms that initial burst of punk evolved into, including queercore and the feminist riot girl movement of the early nineties. But beyond those cosmetic changes, the play harnesses the themes and characters of the film for a confrontational, in-yer-face piece about how Britain remains a regressive nation, one where the far-right are again on the rise and wealth inequality grows ever wider.

If this feels like a lot of philosophical musing over description of the show itself, it’s because Jubilee is in a large part a didactic polemic, with most of the monologues delivered by Travis Alabanza’s Amyl (the role played by Vivienne Westwood model Jordan in the original film), and so you feel the need to if not respond, then at least react accordingly to the statements being made. Many of those statements are posed directly at the audience, pouring scorn on what is (correctly) judged to be a predominantly white middle-class audience, watching a diverse cast that runs the gamut of races, ages, sexualities, gender identities, and disabilities.

 

There are elements of the documentary to Jarman’s film, but it’s not all dour and dreary. In places it’s downright magical, as with the opening where Queen Elizabeth is transported into the “present day” by royal mystic John Dee and the angel Ariel, an intro faithfully recreated here. Except the monarch fares better here (she’s promptly beaten to death by the psychopathic Bod, played here by Sophie Stone, in the film), with punk legend Toyah Wilcox putting on the crown. She spends most of the play in a box seat stage right, where she commentates on the action and, at one point, wears a pair of diamante-studded headphones.

As the introduction of a long-dead monarch and a nod to The Tempest suggests, while Jubilee is in part an exploration of punk and its legacy (or lack thereof), it’s also a meditation on British identity. Nationalism has a history of being wrapped up in racism and xenophobia, from the seventies rise of the National Front up to the present day of UKIP and the alt-right. But Goode’s play, as with Jarman’s film, tries to separate the two. In the process, both argue for a far weirder, mystical and more interesting idea of “Britishness” than that encompassed by fish and chips, the St George’s cross and “Jerusalem” being sung at footie games. In fact, Jez Butterworth’s award-winning West End classic is another good point of comparison and, as with Jerusalem, the attempt isn’t wholly successful here.

Still, it’s thrilling to see a spectrum of national identity which can encompass Temi Wilkey’s Mad, the role played by Wilcox in the film, a pyromaniac with hair dyed the same bright red as her lipstick; Rose Wardlaw’s nympho (although as Amyl notes, a healthy sex life rarely gets pathologised as such when referring to men…) Crabs, in luminous leisurewear; Craig Hamilton and Tom Ross-Williams as Sphinx and Angel, two brothers who nonetheless spend most of the play naked and entwined atop a dirty mattress, later adding Lucy Ellinson’s performance artist Viv to their unholy union; and Yandass Ndlovu as Kid, in snapback cap track bottoms, who Crabs hears rapping on the street.

Not that it’s a hands-across-the-United-Kingdom celebration of diversity. Like the punk movement in its entirety (which is to say, one which places The Slits and Poly Styrene on the same pedestal as The Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer) the ensemble is a chaotic, knotty collection of angry individuals attempting to assert some form of identity in a society committed to suppressing that right, and to express desires which are beyond the mainstream, whether those desires are same-sex rutting, of which there’s a lot, or wholesale murder, of which there’s also a couple of dramatic incidences.

There are a handful of plot strands borrowed from the film, including Kid being courted by a parasitic svengali (Harold Finley), one of Viv’s performances being broken up by a police raid, and Bod’s continuing thirst for blood which claims one of Crabs’s bedmates when he fails to help her reach orgasm. It’s the Amyl monologues that hold everything together, Alabanza alternately funny and charming and genuinely, justifiably furious as they deliver their version of “history” which, in Orwell’s neologism, appears to be a boot stamping on the proletariat’s face forever.

It’s an at times messy and directionless piece, as the film can be, but vividly produced. The set in particular, made up to resemble the rubbish and graffiti-strewn squat in which the ensemble live, is fantastic. The raw, unvarnished nature of this howl against the establishment is largely the point, admittedly, but it still means elements are…raw and unvarnished.

The two most powerful, hilarious and empowering moments come when embracing not only the iconography and politics of the original punk era, but the music too. Firstly, in a set-piece where Alabanza stomps on stage in a Geri Halliwell-inspired Union Jack dress, waving a tattered flag around to a thrashy version of “God Save The Queen” recorded by The Go! Team and, secondly, a fantastic dance routine set to MIA’s “Bad Girls” which opens the second act and features the entire cast: beautiful, diverse, horny, angry, alive.

Runs until: March 10th 2018 at the Lyric Theatre