This summer the Shakespeare Institute Library is celebrating the work of Derek Jarman in an exhibition focusing on his engagement with Renaissance works.
On 7 July we were fortunate to launch the exhibition with a fascinating lecture by Dr Pascale Aebischer entitled, “To the Future”: Derek Jarman’s Edward II in the Archive. Through her researches at Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s home in Dungeness, she revealed a long-term fascination with the play from the edition of the play he used at King’s College University (UCL), through to workbooks and edited scripts for various adaptations, including Sod Em, 28, Pansy and the film which got made, Edward II. Pascale’s abstract for an essay she wrote on this theme:
I argue that the play Jarman first read as a student and admired for its rhetorical figures and portrayal of same-sex love took on a political edge in 1986, when Jarman was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and homophobic legislation was first debated by Margaret Thatcher’s Government. The truncated film treatment 28 and the scripts for Sod ‘Em composed in response to these events use Marlowe’s tragedy as a structuring device that lends historical depth to the struggles of Jarman’s modern protagonist. In 1988, Jarman physically stood this script on its head as he started to rework it as Edward II in a script that imagined a Renaissance setting for the tragedy and stuck remarkably close to Marlowe’s words and Ranulph Higden’s chronicle account of the life of King Edward II. The screenplay Jarman eventually used for Edward II moves back in the direction of the political rage and focus on the present of Sod’Em and shows Jarman hesitating over the ending of his film and the significance of young Edward III. The return to Sod’Em is completed in Jarman’s Marlowe-inspired screenplay for the satirical musical Pansy which imagines a hopeful future for its young queer king Pansy, who vanquishes the conservative forces of repression and dedicates his rule to sexual freedom.
It’s clear that Jarman found an expression of sexual freedom in Renaissance literature which has never been surpassed.
Whatever life threw at Jarman he transformed it into art. He had an amazing ability to see and translate the most painful situations using film, painting and photography into works of beauty.
Jarman’s films are works of cinematic poetry; in his creations, imagery and atmosphere impress as strongly as thematic content. To Jarman the camera was another artistic medium through which he expressed his unique vision. He wields the camera like an artist manipulating a brush – utilising the language of cinema. Using basic technology and Super 8 cameras in his early works, you can particularly see the influence of early cinema; dissolves, montage, silhouettes, reflections, stunning compositions, blocking, lighting and colour designs which take on form and substance. When given the big budget for Edward II he took full advantage of the richness it could offer. It’s difficult to come away from a Jarman film without an unforgettable image impressed and lingering in the imagination.
The exhibition focuses on The Angelic Conversation (a sequence of Shakespeare’s Sonnets read by Judi Dench), The Tempest, and Edward II. As part of the exhibition you can view various stunning clips from Jarman’s films.
I have always felt that Shakespeare translates rather badly into film. There is a great rift between the artificiality of stage conventions and the naturalism of film settings.’ Jarman (Programme notes, London Film Festival, 1979)
Jarman’s version of The Tempest still stands as one of the most original of all British Shakespeare films. Relocated to a crumbling mansion off the Scottish coast, Jarman taps into the anti-establishment spirit of the punk era. The actor and political poet Heathcote Williams was cast as Prospero; the magic, power and creativity of director, actor, playwright and character melded into a dark, hypnotic brew.
‘Forever a cinematic alchemist – a sage that conjured and devoured celluloid before the eventual ritualistic sacrifice- Derek Jarman is the perfect suitor to Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1979); a play whose heart is bathed in the tragedy and power of magic.’ Adam Scovell, Celluloid Wicker Man blog
It’s clear that Jarman felt a strong connection with Shakespeare and Prospero as artists and creators whose art conjured worlds and possibilities beyond the mind’s imagining.
‘When, shortly after Jarman’s HIV positive diagnosis in 1986, he deliberately broke ‘Prospero’s wand, Dee’s hieroglyphic monad,’ the magic staff which had been used in the film, this was not a repudiation on his previous identification with Prospero-Shakespeare, but rather a confirmation of it and, like Shakespeare, he was to die just after his 52 birthday.’ Rowland Wymer, Derek Jarman (Manchester University Press, 2005)
The exhibition will run until the end of September. Great thanks to Dr Pascale Aebischer for all her support and an inspiring lecture; to Dr Phil Wickham, the Curator of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter for his advice and loan of rare materials from the wonderful Don Boyd and James Mackay collections; and to Neil Bartlett for his beautifully evocative description of his installation of The Angelic Conversation to mark the 20th anniversary of Jarman’s death.
Whilst putting up the exhibition the actor and poet Heathcote Williams died. Jarman and he tried to channel the spirit of John Dee into his performance of Prospero. A magician himself he was perfect for the part. According to one obituary ‘he loved magic, because it gave the illusion of breaking rules’. His poetry, like Jarman’s films, often had a lyric beauty but had the visceral power to shock and expose. We also pay tribute to the great man with this exhibition. Obituaries from The Economist, The Guardian, and The Financial Times
Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian