Mark Shenton at the Brighton Festival
9 May 2023
Premiered at the Brighton Festival which is curated this year by Nabihah Iqbal, Blue Now is the quintessential (and essential) festival event: a reinvention and rediscovery of a seminal art work but reimagined to cross genres and boundaries. Blue was a film by Derek Jarman, his final (and arguably most personal but also experimental) work, completed just months before his death in 1993. In the film, he confronted his own desperately failing eyesight as he suffered the effects of HIV, and the mortality of his friends around him while knowing that his life would ultimately be claimed too.
Photo credit: Helen Murray.
Billed as “a film by Derek Jarman, performed live”, Blue Now therefore crosses the boundaries between film and live performance, partly spoken word and partly music. The film’s original composer Simon Fisher Turner — a regular Jarman collaborator on films from Caravaggio in 1986 to Blue — provides a direct link to the original, playing a newly adapted score live. He is joined by four performers: actor and contemporary art collector/advocate Russell Tovey, poet Joelle Taylor, writer/performer and theatre maker Travis Alabanza and writer Jay Bernard. They speak the words, seated in a dimly-lit row underneath the piercing glow of a large screen that is illuminated in an unchanging hue of cobalt blue.
So, there isn’t much to look at. In fact, the biggest visual contribution is made by the intricate choreography of an onstage sign language interpreter who feelingly indicates the different moods of the music as well as translating the words into sign language. Meanwhile, Turner provides a jagged, unsettling soundtrack of rumblings and scratchy beats, buzzers and bleats.
I’ve seen other films presented as live events — notably, Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi, with the music performed live by the Philip Glass ensemble under the direction of Glass himself — but there the feat was amplified, in every sense, by the precision of having to make the music hit the exact beats of the film. Here the task is easier — the film is entirely unchanging — but hearing this electronic score performed live has its own impact.
Photo credit: Helen Murray.
Denied sight — a cruel loss for a visual artist like Jarman — the film-maker instead created a cascade of images through words, by turns haunting, poetic and baldly factual, as when we are given the dismal list of possible side-effects to the supposedly life-saving experimental treatments he is being put through.
It is, not surprisingly, sometimes uncomfortable to watch, or rather hear, this echo from 30 years ago, when HIV/AIDS was still a fatal illness; as with Russell Davies’s TV series It’s a Sin, it’s an important reminder of what the gay community went through. This is part of our history, and we must never forget it. And we lost many, many valiant warriors, like Derek Jarman (just 52 when he died) but his art lives on. And thanks to this reclamation by the influential gay theatre-maker and writer Neil Bartlett, it has been given a vibrant new life, too.
Experiencing it is a bit like sitting through a long meditation session: thoughts come and go, your mind wanders at times, but you are brought back into the present by the sheer force of the words. And you emerge, feeling at once drained and cleansed, grateful to embrace the gift of life we have.
“Blue Now” is presented by WeTransfer in association with Fuel and Basilisk Communications. Performances are at Brighton Festival, 7 May; Turner Contemporary, Margate, 13 May; HOME, Manchester, 21 May; Tate Modern, London, 27 May. For more details, see https://fueltheatre.com/projects/blue-now/ . The digital offering can be found at http://wepresent.wetransfer.com/stories/blue-now-derek-jarman