In 1977 British culture was tying itself in knots.
The Queen, the very epitome of the establishment, was celebrating her silver jubilee, while James Callaghan’s nascent government was already beginning to disintegrate, walking blindly into the Winter of Discontent that would see garbage pile high in the streets and children in the slums of Glasgow rewarded for hunting rats.
The Sex Pistols famously captured this schizophrenic zeitgeist with God Save the Queen from Never Mind the Bollocks.
“God save the queen / She’s not a human being / And there’s no future / And England’s dreaming.”
A year later came the breakthrough movie by a little-known director called Derek Jarman, who also tapped into this working-class anger and boredom, this time focusing on disaffected queer youth raging against an oppressive system. Queen Elizabeth even makes an appearance, albeit the first one.
Now, more than 40 years since the film’s release and 24 years since the director’s death, the Lyric Hammersmith has brought it kicking and screaming onto the stage. The danger of reviving something like Jubilee is that by displacing it from its original context, it becomes a historical oddity, a nostalgic reminiscence, almost quaint.
This new adaptation, written and directed by Chris Goode, neatly sidesteps this by updating vast swaths of the text for a 21st century audience, drawing parallels between the bored, disaffected youth of the late 70s and that of today.
The film, set in a dystopian present in which Queen Elizabeth II has been killed by muggers, ruminated about the end of days, and this production astutely points out that “a fuck of a lot has happened since the end of history”.
It starts with a statement of intent, with two brothers, Angel and Sphinx, having sex on a scabby mattress two feet from the front row (“We’re promoting incest with arts council money!”).
It maintains the low-fi aesthetic of the movie, with the stage a roughly thrown-together squat in which we, the audience, are also residents. The framing device of Queen Elizabeth I travelling in time to convene with “angels” also remains – in a nice hat-tip to the film Toya Willcox returns, this time playing Her Royal Highness.
Beyond that, there is little narrative (surely a bourgeois concept). As the fourth-wall breaking punk poet of the piece Amyl Nitrite says, we’re watching an adaptation of “an iconic film most of you have never heard of... threatening to go all interactive. You poor fuckers.”
There is, however, vogueing, beat poetry, performance art, a rave, some revisionist history and a bunch of floppy willies. In short, it’s an absolute hoot.