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The bubble economy

A film about an 18th-century criminal has an eery resonance with the events of today

The Last Days of Jack Sheppard, an hour-long film by the artists Anja Kirschner and David Panos in which celebrity, crime and economic collapse are all playfully anatomised, seems almost too timely to be true.

Now showing as part of a larger sculptural installation at the Chisenhale Gallery in east London, the film sets the tale of Jack Sheppard – apprentice, thief and serial escapee, hanged at Tyburn in 1724 – against the backdrop of the South Sea Bubble.

The London sketched in The Last Days of Jack Sheppard is a Hogarthian frieze of disgraced stockjobbers, ruined gentry and opportunist hacks. Chief among these last is Daniel Defoe, whose account of Sheppard’s career and demise forms the core of Kirschner and Panos’s richly digressive and devious film.

The Last Days is part docudrama, part Brechtian provocation. It is also, in passing, a sedulously researched essay on the idea of representation in the early 18th century.

It is a film, in other words, about the gap between history and stage, between the imaginative leap required to invest in the new speculative economy and the harsh reality of diminished returns. Defoe, in voice-over, decries the “projecting age” that has led so many to embarrass themselves financially – this even as he acknowledges that his own profession, in an era when novelists still affected journalistic veracity, involves selling nothing more than tricked-up speculation on the truth.

Alexander Pope might as easily have been describing the new genre of the novel as the chimerical South Sea Company when he wrote that, “They have dreamed out their dream and on awakening have found nothing but cobwebs in their hands.”

The market had promised dream returns on minimal investment, profits seemingly conjured out of the air itself. In one notorious instance, briefly noted in Kirschner and Panos’s film, stocks were sold in “a company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is”.

It is no wonder that Jack Sheppard became a folk hero after the collapse of this immaterial economy; his thievery and his prodigious escapes from custody must have made him seem, paradoxically, an assiduous worker, in contrast to the lazy speculators who had lately brought ruin on the City.

Within a fortnight of his execution, he was the subject of a play, Harlequin Sheppard; in 1728, John Gay drew on his story for the character of Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera. The tale of the corrupt young apprentice was periodically revived by the Victorians, and was first filmed in 1900.

Kirschner and Panos are as keenly aware of Sheppard’s mythic place in the pantheon of English outlaw heroes as they are of the economic, artistic and intellectual conditions that prevailed during his short life. The Last Days of Jack Sheppard is at one level a work of careful, even obsessive reanimation: much of the dialogue is taken from Defoe or culled from other writings of the time, and Sheppard’s curious gestures and verbal tics have been reconstructed by an expert in 18th-century deportment.

Yet the film is hardly a work of realism: it veers entertainingly between the style of a documentary re-enactment and a self-consciously stagey piece of agitprop. Sheppard and Defoe are as much political allegories as historical figures: the apprentice standing for the forces of riot and excess, the novelist for the economic “middling way” he had advocated in that proto-bourgeois self-help manual, Robinson Crusoe.

At the heart of the film is the series of meetings Defoe had with Sheppard while the young criminal was incarcerated for the last time. Defoe in fact wrote two accounts of Sheppard’s escapades, the first a moralising chronicle in the third person, the second a racier and more sympathetic effort to ventriloquise the voice of the vagabond.

Kirschner and Panos seem to see in Defoe’s encounters with Sheppard some evidence of the novelist’s own loss of faith in the “middling way”, an impression confirmed when Defoe’s ruinous finances are revealed on the doorstep of his publisher by a Hogarthian hag, Lady Credit.

The Last Days of Jack Sheppard is just the latest film in which Kirschner and Panos have staged well-timed historical clashes between aspects of London’s semi-secret past.

In 2006, they completed Polly II – Plan for a Revolution in Docklands, a tale of waterfront regeneration and urban piracy that drew on the novels of J G Ballard, the dramatis personae of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera and the acting styles of contemporary soap opera. In 2008, they made Trail of the Spider, a western of sorts, set in Hackney and Essex, and again concerned with the depredations of urban renewal.

But if all three films are rooted in London, their cinematic provenance is less clear. Comparison with the more theatrical of Derek Jarman’s films is easy but perhaps misleading – Kirschner is a fan, but Panos professes instead a surprising taste for the cinema of Paul Verhoeven, as well as the urge to make a film with a budget in the millions.

Antic and scholarly, austere and hilarious, filled with references to everything from commedia dell’arte to The Wizard of Oz, the new film by Kirschner and Panos is something more than a canny rehearsal of the financial and social anxieties of a period that closely resembles our own. It is also a work of consummate genre-bending, a film that tortures the conventions of television docudrama until they yield the ironies of Brecht or Dario Fo.

But it is worth seeing, too, solely for the sense of a culture enthralled by the con­sequences of its own economic folly, lashed to Hogarth’s symbolic carousel and sent spinning towards its ruin.

“Anja Kirschner and David Panos” is at the Chisenhale Gallery, London E3, until 21 June, and CCA, Glasgow, 8 August to 26 September

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet, a quarterly art and culture magazine. His “Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives” will be published by Penguin in September