Jarman at Greenwich Theatre
The opening gala for this one-man play took place on what would have been its subject’s 80th birthday. Derek Jarman was a film director, artist, stage designer, gardener and gay rights activist. He was the first public figure in England to openly admit to being gay and being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, which eventually led to his death in 1994 at the age of just 52.
Jarman first gained prominence as a stage designer for Ken Russell’s showily provocative 1971 film The Devils. His own debut feature film told the story of the life of Saint Sebastian, who was killed by arrows and whose figure was favoured by artists for the drama of his end. There is a painterly, intellectual leaning to all of Jarman’s projects. His best-known film, Caravaggio, is a sensual portrait of that giant of Renaissance art. Wittgenstein is about the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Always impeccable in his artistic choices, he unleashed Tilda Swinton on the world and for that, amongst many other things, we can only be grateful.
So this 80-minute, one-man show, written and performed by Mark Farrelly, is a respectful tribute to the man; a greatest-hits run through a colourful and disruptive life. Farrelly has portrayals of other gay icons in his repertoire, namely Quentin Crisp and Frankie Howerd’s lover Dennis, so he has a good pedigree for portraying a certain kind of life (dangerous, transgressive) that is now extinct due to homosexuality being legalised and mostly accepted.
Farrelly tells Jarman’s life in episodic style. Director Sarah-Louise Young has Farrelly constantly on the move as we visit the famous Prospect Cottage garden in Dungeness, various film sets, Heaven nightclub and glimpse sexual encounters in toilets, all done stage bare save for a chair, a roll of brown paper, a sheet and a hand torch.
The set is necessarily sparse due to the constraints of touring, but for such a visual and vibrant artist, it could have been enriched with more colour to complement how he lived his life: from his set design work to his garden to his rumination on the subject of hue, Chroma: A Book of Colour, a frantic goodbye to his work’s most basic tools, written as his sight and life were fading. His life was explosive and chaotic and this could have been shown more in the style as well as the content.
However, I’m sure Jarman would have enjoyed being honoured at this posthumous birthday party. It was a moving evening, especially when friends and associates gathered to sing Happy Birthday in the Q and A session. Jarman is a visceral yet tender tribute to a visionary but tragic life.
Jarman was at Greenwich Theatre on 31st January 2022 and will now tour nationally. For further information visit the theatre’s website here.