It was not a classic English showpiece. Never a place of immaculate lawn and drifts of extravagant blossoms and luxurious shade trees. That was not its purpose. It was a hardscrabble maritime garden of wind and shingle and tough-hearted plants, huddled clumps of weathered survivors, stubborn shrubs and guardian rings of tumbled sea stone dolmens scavenged from the shore. One man’s defiant declaration of life in the face of biting reality.
Filmmaker, artist, writer, LGBTQ+ rights activist Derek Jarman created Prospect Cottage Garden less as memorial, more as proof of self in 1986, the year London specialists first pronounced him HIV positive. Situated on an isolated promontory overseen by a nearby lighthouse and an ominous nuclear power plant brooding in the distance, the modest plot of unforgiving Dungeness headland in southeastern Kent was to be both solace and inspiration for Jarman until his death from AIDS-related complications in 1994 at the age of fifty-two.
Perhaps best known for a singularly eccentric collection of edgy, highly experimental work for film festivals and main screens — Jubilee, Caravaggio and Blue among them — Jarman as cineaste simultaneously exasperated and enthralled, puzzling to traditionalists, a cult hero to iconoclasts. His garden, however, meticulously restored by the independent arts charity, Arts Fund, recently showcased in an award-winning exhibition by the English capital’s influential Garden Museum, has grown to become something of a national shrine, a scrappy tenacious salute to the healing power of nature. It was here, surrounding the tidy, rehabilitated fisherman’s hut he was to call home, all pitch black clapboards and bright yellow trim, a poem by John Donne, The Sunne Rising, inscribed on an outer wall, that the seemingly eternally outspoken, heartbreakingly articulate voice of an entire gay generation would leave his most enduring mark on the landscape of his times.
Hauntingly illuminating a stunningly evocative song cycle by contemporary English composer Donna McKevitt, text by Derek Jarman, Canada’s premier curator of contemporary music, Soundstreams, in partnership with Crow’s Theatre raised the digital curtain on its 2021/22 season late last week with a deeply emotional journey to the centre of pain and suffering, anger, sorrow and undying love. Devised and directed by Tim Albery with additional songs by Toronto-born Glyndebourne composer-in-residence, Cecilia Livingston, Garden of Vanished Pleasures is as much dream as chronicle, a compendium of intensely intimate human experience built phrase on phrase atop successive layers of poetry and urgent observation plucked from Jarman’s journal, Modern Nature. Reality is tumbled delivering us to a place of infinite sadness where friends and lovers bloom then wither like violets and roses felled by frost. A garden of memory.
Please come back next year/Cold, cold, cold, I die so silently./Good night boys, Good night Johnny. Good night. Good night.
Though only occasionally directly referenced by way of specific locale, the restive impulse that informed the creation of Prospect Cottage Garden is vividly evoked. A dazzling lighthouse beam. The persistent surge of breaking waves. The classic 15th century portrait of the arrow-ridden passion of St. Sebastian by Andrea Mantegna, a martyred figure of enduring fascination for Jarman. Backgrounds, courtesy video projection designer Cameron Davis, consistently astonish.
Originally scheduled to debut earlier last winter at Koerner Hall as part of the Royal Conservatory of Music’s 21C Festival, cancelled due to COVID, McKevitt’s excruciatingly penetrating Jarman-related songs for two sopranos, mezzo and counter-tenor strike straight to the heart. Clear-headed and brilliantly dramatized, the ten core pieces drawn from a much longer set of vocals recorded in 1998, generously amplified by Livingston’s own acutely resonant self-penned contributions, range from the fierce and starkly direct to expressions of great beauty and tenderness. Music, singing, spoken text, chant, all ebb and flo, a fluid tide, fundamentally tonal, occasionally dissonant, often touchingly lyrical. Lilting strophic selections employing multiple voices often bound together in close array are particularly engaging.
Singing exquisite harmony, featured artists Mireille Asselin, Lindsay McIntyre and Rebecca Cuddy send McKevitt’s bittersweet a cappella anthem, Translucence, floating skyward, mirroring a poem by Jarman, a soaring salute to precious lost friends personified by Daniel Cabena draped in ghostly lace.
I thought that Ghosts were silent, as glow-worm lamps that spark./Opalescent creatures of shadow and the dark./Oh how they chatter debutantes on crystal stairs./Iridescent matter.
Two Dreams, music and original text by Cecilia Livingston brings the SSM trio to a rough Kentish beach, serviceable workaday trousers rolled to the knees, wading into the surf. And a desperately precarious future.
I stand at the edge of the sea./I stand at the edge./I stand.
Cellist Amahl Arulanandam and violist Brenna Hardy-Kavanagh conjure shatteringly effective colour and atmosphere.
Assuming a no less affecting solo point of view, the pure, ringing choir boy alto of Cabena channeling Jarman rages at The System while Asselin’s take on the protagonist sings a jazzy love song, Parting, in a hipster London club, music director Rachael Kerr partnering on piano, playing snappy bebop inevitably transitioning to the ominous.
My garden’s boundaries are the horizon, Jarman once observed in a pointed note to self. He was of, course, referencing more than mere setting and terrain. AIDS was everywhere. What he could never forsee, lying in wait at the interface of humanity and the future, was COVID. The pandemic lurks in every shadow and dark corner of this production, an undisclosed but nonetheless potent subtextual presence. The present is never far removed from the horror of the past. The need for understanding and compassion is not constrained by time.
Garden of Vanished Pleasures has deep roots. There are no absolute borders here. Albery and company have raised a masterpiece.
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Garden of Vanished Pleasures streams on Vimeo until October 10, 8:00 PM. Tickets $20 at https://soundstreams.ca/performances/main-stage/garden-of-vanished-pleasures