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A fiercely powerful staging of Derek Jarman’s punk classic
People have been pontificating on what punk is – if it’s sold out, if it’s dead – pretty much since it showed up. So I’m not going to join them. Except to say that if anyone’s keeping the ripped Union Jack flag flying, it’s got to be queer people of colour who are risking everything to live outside the rules of a heteronormative, post-Brexit society. Chris Goode’s play, transferring to Lyric Hammersmith after opening at Royal Exchange Manchester, gets this. He reimagines Derek Jarman’s 1978 punk cult movie ‘Jubilee’ just enough to make it speak to today, but leaves its wild nihilist momentum intact.
It’s set in a squat (although this being 2018, it’s probably a warehouse share) where the cast bicker, wheel a pram on fire around, violently demolish the patriarchy, rewrite history, and watch YouTube videos. Travis Alabanza (playing Amyl Nitrate, the group’s historian) brings us up to speed on this show’s world, and pretty much anticipates every possible criticism of it: ‘Welcome to “Jubilee”. An iconic film most of you have never even heard of, adapted by an Oxbridge twat for a dying medium, spoiled by millennials, ruined by diversity, and constantly threatening to go all interactive. You poor fuckers.’
But although there are a fair few walk-outs, there’s no need to feel sorry for the audience: ‘Jubilee’ is fundamentally a really enjoyable evening, whether you’re being enjoyably shocked or just wholeheartedly enjoying its surge of violence, naked men, visual splendour and gleeful subversion.
What separates it from the original film is the amped-up self-awareness it brings to the plot, which follows the gang as they get sucked into the clutches of an evil record mogul, and attacked by the police. Viv (played by a brilliantly on-message Lucy Ellinson) brings this self-awareness home, playing a middle-class, university-educated artist who’s at one remove from the ‘authentic’ punk energy of the rest of the gang. But what is authentic, anyway? Goode’s text emphasises how easily subversion is commodified and sold on: genderfluidity is trumpeted in fashion magazines while trans people are attacked in the streets, and in broadsheets.
It also infuses its nihilistic source material with new warmth, creating a sense of a mutually supportive community that’s at odds with the world outside. Sometimes, the gaps between the spirit of this ‘Jubilee’ and the violent events it takes from its source material feel a bit jarring – like the lack of space these caring punks have to acknowledge the violent deaths of their fallen friends.
Still, this weirdness also points to the impossibility of depicting a world whose violence is often invisible. There aren’t really cops shooting people at queer parties, but under austerity politics, there’s a quieter destruction at work. ‘Jubilee’ ends by pointing to the precariousness and fragility of rebellion, while leaving just enough space for hope.