Punk is dead. Long live punk.
When director Derek Jarman released Jubilee in 1978, punk had already scaled its zenith and was starting to tumble down the other side. The Sex Pistols had just split. The controversy of ‘God Save The Queen’ had come and gone. Thatcher was lurking just beyond the horizon.
Chris Goode’s version – more of a playful wrestle with Jarman’s film than an adaptation of it – asks what punk means now, four decades after it had its moment. By the time I was aware of punk in the late 90s, it was already nostalgia. Now, in 2017, it’s distant yet present. It’s Johnny Rotten in butter adverts. It’s mohawks and safety pins at fancy dress parties. It’s the Sex Pistols on the radio.
Jarman’s film suggested that everyone would sell out in the end, and punk proved him right. That abandoning of revolutionary stances and evacuating of radical gestures is worried away at throughout Goode’s reimagining. His Jubilee is firmly located in the now – the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s uranium jubilee, according to protagonist Amyl Nitrite (queer performance artist Travis Alabanza) – and picks at contemporary scabs. Is there still any sort of resistance in nihilism at a time when the film’s defiant cry of “no future” feels more and more like a simple statement of truth?
Plot almost feels irrelevant here, just as it did in the original, but there is a narrative of sorts. Queen Elizabeth I (Toyah Willcox, who was the scowling, pyromaniac Mad in Jarman’s film 40 years ago) is hurled forwards in time by Dr. Dee (Harold Finley), with a little help from Shakespeare’s Ariel (the ever-glorious Lucy Ellinson). Almost as soon as she arrives in the twenty-first century, her crown has been nabbed by Bod (Sophie Stone), the brutal leader of a fierce gang of misfits. She continues to watch on from her throne in the Royal Exchange gallery as these present-day punks drink, fuck, dance and kill down below.
Like Jarman’s film, Goode’s production is episodic, jumping distractedly between scenes. We watch as the characters writhe naked together on mattresses; as they terrorise café owners and suffocate lovers; as they hurl fire bombs and curse tomorrow. In between, they talk about the beauty and cruelty and hopelessness of the world, their conversations updated to speak to the grim context of 2017. There are references to death-trap tower blocks and screen-induced apathy.
Festooned in union flags and scrawled with graffiti, Chloe Lamford’s design slams 70s squat into Brexit Britain. The iconography of Jarman’s film is all present and correct, but current events somehow inflect it with new meaning. When Amyl performs a gloriously irreverent version of “Rule Britannia”, it both conjures and subverts a newly soured form of nationalism, while each thrust of the hips against the flag-pole between their legs screams that Britain is fucked.
For all that it’s an ensemble piece, with an all-round brilliant cast, the show belongs to Alabanza’s swaggering, acerbic Amyl. Goode’s script gifts them with lacerating wit, as they archly lecture us on the history of human rights and the British Empire. But Alabanza can also slice right through the irony and patter, suddenly stripping everything back to naked, shuddering anger.
Rage is the heartbeat of this show, pulsing beneath the sex and the violence and the theatricality. Rage at the system. Rage at inequality. Rage at all the ways we’ve tried and failed to make the world work, from punk to neoliberalism. It erupts through in white-hot flashes, asking why we’re not all setting things on fire like Bod and her gang.
Yet there’s also an insistent questioning, a self-critical awareness that stops Jubilee from being the pure cry of anger that it wants to be. It’s a show that knows, in a pained sort of way, that ultimately it’s a piece of art rather than an act of protest. As Amyl puts it, “when desires become reality, you don’t need fantasy any longer, or art”. Jubilee is a demonstration of just how many desires remain unfulfilled.
It’s also a show that’s uncomfortable with the dissident status it claims for itself. Through the character of live artist Viv (Ellinson again), it ribs the self-indulgences and self-delusions of art that tries to change the world, while never entirely abandoning the idea that theatre might have a role in making change. There’s a sense, too, of its strange insider-outsider status on the main stage of the Royal Exchange. It’s a shock to the system, but that same system has invited it in.
Again, Goode gives the best lines to Amyl, who introduces Jubilee as “an iconic film most of you have never heard of, adapted by an Oxbridge twat for a dying medium, spoiled by millennials, ruined by diversity, and constantly threatening to go interactive”. Everyone behind this chaotic pageant knows precisely what they’re doing and precisely the ways in which it’s limited and flawed and compromised. Yet that sense of knottiness and impossibility and going on ahead in spite of it all is absolutely in keeping with what it is to be alive now.
Broken theatre for a broken world. That feels pretty punk after all.
Jubilee is on at Royal Exchange, Manchester until 18th November, 2017. More info here.