THEATRE REVIEW: Jarman at Playhouse Sheffield

ICONIC gay rights activist and filmmaker Derek Jarman lived an astonishing life - we review a new stage account of it.

ICONIC gay rights activist and filmmaker Derek Jarman lived an astonishing life.

Indeed, Jarman demanded everybody be astonishing. And so it is at the end of Mark Farrelly's amazing solo portrait, that's the message the audience is left with. 

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Film director, stage and screen set designer and artist, Jarman also created a wonderful garden at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, a shingle paradise, where he lived - a magical place I visited recently on holiday in Kent.

He loved the marine colours of silver, ochre and lime green.

Writer and performer Mark Farrelly captures the very soul of Jarman, especially so in his haunting rendition of Ewan McColl's The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, famously sung by Roberta Flack - clearly a Jarman favourite - which is mournful but full of hope. Like the play itself.

It is Jarman’s humanity, an authentic voice in a world of pretence and fake emotions dictated by big money, which comes across so powerfully.

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And we watch Farrelly, who wrote the piece after reading Jarman’s diaries from the last few years of his life before dying of AIDS in 1993, as he bares his own soul with superb acting.

Jarman, reviled by the media at the time and now a forgotten figure, started his career as a set designer in a production of Don Giovanni for John Gielgud which didn’t go well, but he established himself, first as designer on The Devils a film directed by Ken Russell, another anti-establishment character. 

Farrelly explores Jarman's many contradictions, showing his huge talent and influence.

Films included Sebastiane (made in 1976 for which he wrote the script in Latin), the punk inspired Jubilee (1978), followed by Caravaggio and to his final film Blue (1993).

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We see Jarman the boy being punished and made fun of at home and school, particularly by his cruel ex-RAF father.

But success brought the high life at London’s Bankside, while dressing up as Miss Crêpe Suzette for the Alternative Miss World and wearing scrunched-up brown paper as “Sister Ejaculata." 

Farrelly - looking strikingly like Jarman in boiler suit and beanie hat - uses charisma and energy to draw the audience in, leaping up and down the aisles for little comic asides and friendly banter, and getting help from audience members for a light show projected onto a white sheet.

It’s hard to watch as we see Jarman dying of AIDS as he loses his sight but not his defiant artistic integrity, the eerie sound of crunching glass under his feet. 

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A great piece of live theatre, with Sarah-Louise Young’s production really buzzing, helped by Tom Lishman’s sound design and Craig West's lighting. 

Is decadence really the first sign of intelligence? It is in Jarman's case, of course.

As Farrelly - Sheffield born and bred - says afterwards, it’s time for Jarman to be rediscovered so today's generation can be astonishing too.


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