THEATRE REVIEW | Jubilee, Lyric Theatre Hammersmith
★★☆☆☆ | Jubilee
Ever seen Jubilee? The visionary, anarchic mash-up of gay sex, brutal anarchy and transcendent mysticism? If not, load up the fresh, newly-released blu-ray and gorge on Jarman’s genius now – the new theatre adaptation’s completely superfluous!
Why? How could a show awash with copious, writhing nudity and irreverence possibly bore audiences stiff? Well, because of two words – total misinterpretation. Sure, back in the viciously closeted, mid-70s, Jubilee seemed fantastically liberationist, but now – in this version at least – reads as fatuous self-
Partly, that’s due to the ironic paradox of intolerance lurking at the heart of current identity politics. Rather than properly embrace the utopian dream of guilt-free self-expression – which the movie Jubilee pointed towards – this treatment merely showcases bullying exhibitionism – moral, spiritual and sexual- at any cost.
Perhaps that’s not surprising – it is, after all, a poisonously accurate portrait of current society. Briefly – for those unfamiliar with the movie¬ Queen Elizabeth the First, played with appropriate fire, spunk and glory by Toyah Wilcox – is mystically translated into a future punk-rock, nihilistic dystopia by her court magician, Doctor John Dee, to witness the spiritual wreckage to come. And truthfully, the staging concept is simply marvellous in evoking the blurred boundaries between hard-edged naturalism and soaring, psychedelic fantasy that any worthwhile treatment of Jubilee demands.
From moment one, Toyah’s in character, hands clasped pondering at a candle-lit desk, while all around her, performers shamble and sidle amongst the audience, creating a dislocating sense of timeless impermanence, the sense that this particularly potent fiction will persist before, after and during our attendance.
But, there’s one huge problem – non-existent dramatic tension. Sure, Jubilee’s neo-punks prowl randomly during the interval, desperately hoping to own the space with the nuclear panache of street thugs, but quite laughably, they come across as less threatening than the fluffiest pack of neutered kittens! Frankly, this tired notion of provocative engagement with the audience -wrongly perceived as daringly new and radical- limps all the way back to the dark ages of the 1970s, when the Living Theatre troupe desperately tried to wank, molest and similarly bore uninterested audiences!
And tragically, the evocation of laissez-faire decadence – so crucially important to Jarman’s aesthetic – is lazily rendered here as nothing more than indiscriminate coitus and casually –torched petrol-bombs in prams. Ah, couldn’t we have even a touch of imaginative and highly exclusive excess, a mere three hundred years after De Sade, such as mixed-donor, frozen spunk lollies gleefully scoffed by one and all?
Okay, admittedly, Jubilee does boast a stunning range of high-voltage movement and shouty charisma, particularly with Sophie Stone’s Bod, but too often, a fine actorial balance collapses, and we feel as if we’re eavesdropping on some shock-jocks soiree. And arguably, the casual, often unwise nudity does make a possible argument for instant, erotic euthanasia, the new, theatrical crime of flaunting uncharismatic genitals!
Still, there’s the fizzy counterbalance of Toyah Wilcox’s Elizabeth oozing genderqueer warmth and traction, alone, lyrical voice soaring from this interminable pit of soiled, post-modern divinity and lost opportunity.
Lost opportunity? Of course- rather than giving current trans discourse sharp, incisive wings, Jubilee merely muddles variant gender expression. That’s hardly the fault of the shockingly vivid and explosive Travis Alabanza, who- playing alternative historian Amyl Nitrate- is obviously on gender-variant hyper-drive, but rather, the entitled assumptions behind the scripting. Why should any individual’s desire – right or wrong – automatically trump any other moral imperative or sense of compassion?
And again, since when did ‘trans’ become such an elastic, unnuanced label that it simply denotes any bloke mincing onstage in bad drag? The self-evident absurdity of that line of thinking necessarily means accepting Les Dawson and other cismale comedians as ‘trans’, and doesn’t that completely devalue the struggles – political, medical and surgical – of trans figures who’ve either partially or fully transitioned?
Still, despite its incoherent and often contradictory artistry, Jubilee – like all the best theatre –is thrillingly provocative if short on answers, and – like our current Queen Lizzie herself – snatches at elusive shreds of majestic glamour. Ultimately, Jubilee is ambition re-imagined as art, the bedrock of all theatrical brilliance!