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Jarman at the King’s Head Theatre

Be astonishing. That’s Derek Jarman’s exhortation to the world at large and – at the end of the show – to this particular audience. And in this riveting bio-drama about the legendary film-maker/artist/gardener there is one truly astonishing moment. Writer/performer Mark Farrelly hasn’t got the greatest singing voice – and I think he’d agree. It’s gravelly, vaguely tuneful and not all the notes are pitch perfect. But early on in the play, he gives us a rendition of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly which is downbeat but positive, mournful but inspired with hope, and which nips at our soul like the pincers on a Dungeness crab. It’s an amazing moment – amongst many amazing moments in this show – and it’s there, and it works, because it is real. And that, I think, is the main message we take from Jarman: he was a real person, an authentic voice, living through a world that he saw as fantasy. In this show we have a performer, at the top of his game, actually giving us his soul, through the soul of Jarman himself.

Mark Farrelly in Jarman.
Mark Farrelly in Jarman.

It’s wonderful what you learn in shows such as this. I was mesmerised by Jarman’s films in the late ’seventies and ’eighties. What I didn’t know was when, as a student, I watched The Devils by director Ken Russell – whom I revered at the time (please don’t judge) it was designed by Jarman as were some of Russell’s other films. And as Farrelly takes us through Jarman’s greatest hits we start to appreciate what a monumental talent and influence he was. From Sebastiane (1976) (dialogue in Latin…) through the socially provocative Jubilee (1978), via Caravaggio, an early hit for Channel 4 TV (a medium Jarman despised!), to his final films Blue (1993) – shown at the Venice Film Festival, and Glitterbug (1994), broadcast on BBC 2 posthumously.

Whilst giving us the facts and staging-posts of Jarman’s life Farrelly never lets up on the passion of the man, the artistic integrity, the quirkiness, and the sheer bloody-minded refusal to bow to the societal norms of commerciality, conformity and conventionality. Above all, Farrelly shows us, was Jarman’s passionate advocacy of Gay Rights.

Jarman is directed effectively and compassionately by Sarah-Louise Young. As a solo show, it’s a tour-de-force; and as a piece of writing, it is a mini-masterpiece, infusing wit, pathos, intelligence and understanding. We can all get hold of wisdom of course, as the Old Book says, but when we get that wisdom we should also get understanding. Farrelly clearly gets Jarman, gets his wisdom and gets his understanding and conveys it to us with unrelenting vigour touched with humorous asides, conspiratorial side-eyes and, yes, a little help from the audience which he manages with discreet aplomb. With Lighting Design by Craig West, I must just give a shout-out to the colour-changing torch that Farrelly employs throughout – at one point handing it to a chap in the front row – who fails to manage it with aplomb.

The last part of the show, where Jarman is dying of aids – losing his sight but not his burning artistic intensity – is hard to take. Which is how it should be. But we leave the King’s Head strangely invigorated, experiencing a gradually pervading warmth and with Jarman’s words – via Farrelly’s infectious fervour – ringing in our ears: be astonishing!

5 Star Rating

Review by Peter Yates

A mighty spirit is about to reawaken. Yours.

Derek Jarman: film-maker, painter, gardener at Prospect Cottage, gay rights activist, writer…his influence remains as strong as it was on the day AIDS killed him in 1994. But his story, one of the most extraordinary lives ever lived, has never been told. Until now.

This vibrant new solo play from Mark Farrelly (Quentin Crisp: Naked Hope) brings Derek back into being for a passionate, daring reminder of the courage it takes to truly live while you’re alive. A journey from Dungeness to deepest, brightest Soho and into the heart of one of our most iconoclastic artists.

Jarman’s works include taboo-breaking films like Sebastiane, Jubilee and Caravaggio, pop videos for the Pet Shop Boys (It’s A Sin and Rent), his extraordinary borderless garden in Dungeness, his shocking last paintings, and his unforgettable final film Blue, consisting of a single continuous frame of blue and chronicling what it’s like to lose your sight…but never your artistic vision.

Written and performed by Mark Farrelly
Directed by Sarah-Louise Young
Lighting Design by Craig West
Stage Managed by Thomas Fielding

2nd August – 26th August 2022

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  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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