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Mark Shenton: How do audiences and critics react when a show is designed to provoke them?

Toyah Willcox in Jubile at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Johan Persson Toyah Willcox in Jubilee at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Johan Persson
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At the start of the second act of Jubilee, the stage version of Derek Jarman’s 1978 film that has transferred from Manchester’s Royal Exchange to the Lyric Hammersmith, one of the performers surveys the audience and notes that there have obviously been some early departures.

I was very nearly one of them. I decided that I would spare myself – and the show – the need to write a review (because it is of course a total no-no to do so after only seeing half a production). But, after leaving the theatre in the interval to get a little bit of sugar comfort, I went back.

After the show, I tweeted what a bad time I’d had, and my colleague Lyn Gardner replied:

When I searched out her original review of that run, I found she cautioned: “Don’t think of leaving at the interval: the first half may drag a little, but the payoff is delivered in the show’s final 50 minutes, in which fierce energy gives way to aching loss as a generation with no future searches for a phoenix in the ashes.”

This is one of those pieces where it’s interesting to go ‘below the line’ on reviews and check out the readers’ comments.

One says: “Act I was really engaging, fun and erred on something profound. Act II however was a jumbled, meaningless mess.” And another person replies: “On the contrary – most people have praised Act II, particular the Seal Club scene. It’s an explosion of 21st century contradictions. It’s the first act people think is slightly too long.”

Another states: “This play wouldn’t be anywhere near as fantastic as it is, if it didn’t attract as much distaste and criticism as it has. While obviously your opinion is valid, I can’t help but feel you’ve fallen right into the liberal sneering trap the play has set for you. I for one, if perhaps only for fear of embarrassing myself, find it difficult to fault at all.”

If Jubilee is a show that was deliberately designed to alienate, then that was mission accomplished

If Jubilee is a show that was deliberately designed to alienate, then that was mission accomplished. It’s an intriguing strategy: the show wins either way. If people love it, it can bask in the glow; if they leave, it can rejoice in alienating them.

The production sets its confrontational, antagonist stall right from the beginning. In the second scene, a character that rejoices in the name of Amyl Nitrate welcomes the audience with a direct address, telling us: “How nice to be with you. One gets a much better class of audience at the subsidised theatre, I must say. The cinema is full of scumbags. Eating their pick-n-mix and live-tweeting their inane thoughts to their seven followers. Ugh. Thank you for your bourgeois stultification, it makes for a much nicer atmosphere.”

Then Amyl lets us know what we’re in for: “So, welcome to Jubilee. An iconic film most of you have never even heard of, adapted by an Oxbridge twat for a dying medium, spoiled by millennials, ruined by diversity, and constantly threatening to go all interactive. You poor fuckers”.

Some may be duly flattered by this knowingly meta self-awareness. It’s throwing down the gauntlet: will we dare to agree to disagree?

And – as Lyn and my diverging opinions show – the answer is that differs from person to person.

Critics, of course, often disagree: it’s part of the rich tapestry of theatre opinion makers we have in the UK that (a) there are still so many of us; and (b) there isn’t a consensus of politics, outlook or taste among us.

As I replied to Lyn Gardner:

Read The Stage review of Jubilee

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