“It was the first thing I did after I left college,” Jemmett says more than a quarter of a century on as he prepares to bring Shake, his end of the pier take on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, to Edinburgh International Festival. “I just went up there and did it, and I looked up and suddenly there were 200 people there, and when the Poll Tax inspector was hung we got this enormous cheer.”
Beyond such political knockabout, Cambridge-born Jemmett has carved out a singular career as a director in what in the UK used to be called alternative theatre. A move to France in the 1990s liberated him even more, especially in his attitude to Shakespeare. Shake followed shortly after the move, with Jemmett reimagining the bard's cross-dressing comedy with a pick and mix of popular cultural idioms culled from vaudeville and 1970s Saturday night TV, and set in a rubbish English seaside towns straight out of Hi-de-Hi!
“When I was growing up in the 1970s,” Jemmett says, “we had these family holidays in Great Yarmouth, so when I moved to Paris, I had this sort of nostalgia that came from this self-imposed exile. Also, my dad had been an actor after the second world war, and he was really into vaudeville. That was regarded as rather a vulgar artform, and the death of variety also seemed to mark the death of English seaside towns when cheap flights allowed everyone to go abroad for their holidays.
“Then in the seventies, all of that resurfaced on television. I remember watching The Good Old Days, where everyone dressed up in nineteenth century clothes, but which I never really got. Then there was The Two Ronnies and shows like that, and there was Tommy Cooper, who was an incredibly skilled magician, but who played at being a bad one, and you realised he was making things go wrong in purpose. There were puppets, like Basil Brush and Lord Charles, and there was The Generation Game, which got people to dress up in costumes and do things, and there was something immensely performative about that. All of this was a big event on Saturday night in rural Cambridgeshire.”
Performed in French with English surtitles by a cast of five, Shake is presented by Jemmett's Paris-based Eat A Crocodile company. This revised version of the show features a new translation by Marie-Paule Ramo. In keeping with the show's retro approach, a record player and some old school discs become an integral part of the action, cranking out sped-up renditions of kitsch TV theme tunes such as It's A Knockout and Superstars, or else the big band lite of the Geoff Love Orchestra and the loungecore grooviness of Herb Albert.
“As I get older,” says Jemmett, “I realise the things you see between the ages of eight and twenty stay with you forever. You're like a sponge at that age, and you assimilate these things in a very unconscious way. I look back at the work I've done, and I can't get rid of certain tropes.”
Jemmett's theatre career began at Goldsmith's College, where he co-founded the Primitive Science company. Inspired by the likes of American auteur Robert Wilson, the company took an experimental approach to non-dramatic works by the likes of Franz Kafka, as well as little seen pieces by German playwright Heiner Muller.
“We were a collective,” Jemmett explains, “with a healthy dose of youthful arrogance. We were in opposition to more traditional theatre. We were all signing on and living unhealthily. I didn't get paid until I was thirty.”
In 1998, a London production of Ubu at the Young Vic was one of Jemmett's final UK works before he moved to France. Only here did he develop an interest in Shakespeare.
“When I was in England with Primitive Science we would never have thought of doing Shakespeare,” he admits. “Of course, I studied him at school, so he was there, but I suppose I needed to get some kind of distance to look at his work without some of the baggage that goes with it. Even the act of translation and hearing the plays done in a foreign language brings something else to it. If I did hear Shakespeare done by English actors I'd probably run off back abroad.”
Jemmett's approach to the classics has been influenced in part by Brace Up, American avant-garde company The Wooster Group's take on Chekhov's Three Sisters.
“I'd never seen anything like it,” Jemmett says. “It deconstructed the play, but it also managed to remain faithful to it.”
Beyond taking liberties with Shakespeare, Jemmett has directed a French translation of William Burroughs Caught in Possession of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. This glorious dramatic ramble sees the grand-daddy of Beat literature set sail on a rudderless voyage in a pirate ship with fellow novelist Kathy Acker and punk icon Johnny Thunders. The play, seen briefly in its original production at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, was penned by Johny Brown, vocalist and driving force behind post-punk soothsayers The Band of Holy Joy. In terms of maverick spirit, Brown is something of a kindred spirit of Jemmett.
“Johny was based in New Cross,” Jemmett remembers, “and he did the music for a Heiner Muller piece, Quartet, which we did with Primitive Science. He gave me the William Burroughs play, and I was intrigued by it. It was imaginative and audacious, and it rather foolhardily got translated into French. It was a bit of an anomaly, and kind of got lost in the cultural mix, but Johny is a force for good. He's a a true poetic soul and a total one-off.”
Jemmett has also worked with junkyard Brechtian musical trio the Tiger Lillies on a production of The Little Match Girl after Tiger Lillies vocalist Martyn Jacques performed with Primitive Science. In 2009 Jemmett made Curtains, a fifteen minute film co-written and co-directed with Julian Barratt, was screened at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival.
More recently Jemmett directed a production of Hamlet set in a clubhouse bar complete with a dancefloor and jukebox, and last year staged a version of Michael Ondjaate's 1970 experimental poetry collection, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.
“I'm not interested in just directing plays,” says Jemmett. “I want to find different approaches to things, and I think it's important to tell a story in your own way. Sometimes in the UK there's a resistance to that, especially with Shakespeare. Sometimes I'm surprised there's such a negligible avant-garde in the UK, but there are more than enough traditional Shakespeare's that get done. There's room for everything.”
Shake, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 11-13, 7.30pm; August 12-13, 2.30pm.www.eif.co.uk
The Herald, August 11th 2016