There are many lenses through which one can consider this hugely influential maker and his prolific, fecund and diverse oeuvre, but the ‘theatrical’ is certainly absolutely central to Jarman’s vision of creative possibility, regardless of the medium in question.
Even before one encounters his work – and this is most resonant for those who actually met him – the ‘staging’ of his persona, his declared ‘self’, a dynamically creative gay man in a generally hostile culture, suggested how importantly he viewed the productive tensions implicit within the very idea of theatre: I am, and am not, the person I present. This extended to his choice of living space, at once private and public, from the pioneering loft on London’s Bankside to his final years at Prospect Cottage on the windswept shingle of Dungeness.
Indeed, now, 23 years after his untimely early death, it is arguably his identity (or should that be plural) that continues most to inform and energise those who value his works, not least because it is indivisible from everything he made. Jarman is not an artist compartmentalising his art and biography (whether vocational, emotional, sexual or philosophical).
In terms of the more ‘practically’ theatrical too, Jarman held strong allegiances to that platform. His early career saw him design for the stage, as well as for opera, the Royal Ballet, Sadler’s Wells and cinema (notably Ken Russell’s THE DEVILS, 1971). That said, he is most readily known and regarded for his films, 11 features and numerous shorts, celluloid experiments and music videos.
A celebration of performance, of the heightened reality that comes from expressive being caught on celluloid or tape, runs throughout Jarman’s work in this medium. This is inevitable in the promos he made for the Sex Pistols, Marianne Faithfull, Suede, Bryan Ferry, Marc Almond, the Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, Bob Geldof, Patti Smith and many others, but it also permeates the more personal 8mm and 16mm pieces, fleeting diary fragments of experience from his own life and those around him, shards of imagistic intensity.
In the longer form works, however, the link is explicit, not least because Jarman made strikingly vivid, sensory versions of both THE TEMPEST (1979) and Marlowe’s EDWARD II (1991). Jarman’s attraction to the Elizabethan period and its deeply theatrical pose is clear. That his Shakespeare follows directly on from JUBILEE is also significant, his examination of national crisis (Jarman was undeniably ‘English’ while also challenging almost all the received expectations of that titling) proceeding into a wider exploration of nature and nurture, colonial pressures and, of course, a fever dream of possibilities. Jarman’s island is a glimpsed space, made frequently by implication and veering from candlelight to draped excess. Budgetary constraints throughout his life meant that sets were always more suggestive than representative, with props, objects and artefacts hinting at the larger spaces they belonged to, often unseen ‘offstage’. In this way, he created film shoots as a form of temporary theatre, but such a decision should not be seen only as a response to necessity. It’s productive to argue that he enjoyed the ‘liveness’ such an attitude engendered, with performers and crew at once both actors and audience in the unfolding, often fiscally vulnerable enterprise.
His Prospero was the path-breaking dramatist Heathcote Williams (AC/DC), and other cast members included regular stage actors Christopher Biggins, Karl Johnson, and the equally visionary and unclassifiable Ken Campbell. This affection for well-regarded theatre professionals ran throughout Jarman’s film-making. Michael Gough (THE GARDEN, 1990), Nigel Terry (CARAVAGGIO, 1986 and elsewhere), Judi Dench (THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION, 1985) and even Laurence Olivier in his final role (WAR REQUIEM, 1989) all appeared, alongside then unknowns, untutored talents and friends from his broad, creative family of music, countercultural, gay and dissident fellow travellers. It was only because of this community that he could consider making longer films at all. His debut feature, SEBASTIANE (1976), casting those he knew directly, and dramatising the martyrdom of the named Saint, was shot in Sardinia with dialogue exclusively in Latin. The challenges inherent in such a venture are all too clear...
Indeed, Jarman’s way of working over nearly 20 years was much closer to that of a theatrical troupe, with a mutual loyalty on his part and thatof both cast and technicians. In this, he echoes the strategy of the German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, similar in his love of both theatre and cinema, and who could only make the huge number of films he did because of the instinctual understanding created through long-term partnerships. And, like Fassbinder (and theatre more generally), Jarman often worked with a kind of chamber drama, offering an intense focus on an ensemble of characters by which he could explore larger societal concerns. This strategy is apparent in his remarkable ‘biopic’ of the Renaissance painter Caravaggio and in his brilliantly minimalist, black-box study of the philosopher Wittgenstein (1993).
But Jarman extends the use of the dramatic beyond historical re-enactment (however wildly realised). His setting of Shakespeare’s sonnets (THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION) and of Benjamin Britten’s WAR REQUIEM allowed him to appropriate canonical scripted and musical texts to engage with the conflict he was born into and with his sexuality and its aesthetic antecedents.
However, it is in his sui generis ‘live art’ film poems that Jarman’s singular and most distinctive contribution resides. Here the abiding tone is not only drawn from, or quoting the poetic and the theatrical. It embodies it, literally, fascinated by the radical bodies, the desiring bodies and the dying body (Jarman’s own) which populate the frame. JUBILEE’s sister, THE LAST OF ENGLAND (1988), rages against Thatcherism in a blasted Docklands. The lovers of THE GARDEN challenge a repressive faith establishment, and in BLUE (1993), an unchanging screen of that colour carries a soundscape of voices, effects and music meditating on the director’s living with AIDS.
It in this extraordinary final work – premiered across Channel 4 and Radio 3 simultaneously – that, ironically, Jarman’s lasting achievement can be perceived. For it understands implicitly that the greatest, and most open creative meeting, whether on the page, on stage or on the screen, lies in the imagination, in the collaboration of medium and maker and audience, in the common ground of a culture that knows and sings the sorrows and joys of this shared dream that we call life.
Gareth Evans is a writer, curator, publisher, event and film producer.