Kneehigh Theatre: Ubu Karaoke

On Saturday I went with Mrs TD and daughter’s family to see the innovative Kneehigh Theatre’s rousing show Ubu Karaoke in their ‘Asylum’ marquee in the beautiful setting of the Lost Gardens of Heligan .

We always expect to be delighted by Kneehigh’s invention and imaginative multi-talented casts and crew; Ubu Karaoke is probably their best yet. There’s a storyline of sorts – crazed, megalomaniac dictator assassinates the equally dodgy ruler, creates a regime of repression and disorder designed to benefit only himself, until the ex-leader’s daughter rises up against him (a bear is also involved) and he’s flushed down a toilet – literally. It’s described on their website as ‘ this deliriously unhinged improvised promenade musical’:

We all know an Ubu.
Impossibly greedy, unstoppably crude, inexorably hell-bent on making our country great again!
Sound familiar?

The show is staged in the round, with the audience sitting or standing in tiered wooden stalls, but also encouraged to stand next to the action and mingle with the players. The programme boasts with justification that’s it’s ‘as satisfying as Massaoke, and eminently more useful’. A terrific house band, with the glorious name The Sweaty Bureaucrats, belts out a rousing sequence of classic pop and rock tunes to punctuate and illustrate the action. There are electronic info-screens all round the circular tent with a constant stream of hashtag jokes, commentary and lyrics to the songs. The audience are encouraged to sing along; on the Saturday we went they did so with gusto, making a powerful, stirring, hilarous atmosphere.

Kneehigh programmeIt’s played for laughs, with plenty of scatological humour. The dictator’s henchman, for example, revels in the name Captain Shittabrique (played with panache by Robi Luckay); he feigns disgust at the regular and predictable mispronunciations of his surname. The kids loved that. (So did the adults, really).

There’s a serious underlying message, though, as there was in Alfred Jarry’s original anarchic, surreal/Symbolist romp staged for just one performance on its first run in Paris in 1896 – it caused a riot, with its pointed satire on power elites and ridiculing of the establishment and authority. Ubu was Jarry’s bizarre ‘weapon of mass disruption’, a ‘howling, hysterical metaphor for greed’ (programme notes). His play was in turn loosely parodying elements of Hamlet (which Kneehigh keep by having the murdered leader’s ghost appear on a high platform; we know he’s a ghost because he has a paper bag over his head bearing the word ‘GHOST’ on it), King Lear (those crazed, power-mad dynasties) and others I probably missed.

Alfred Jarry

Portrait of Jarry, By Atelier Nadar – Reproduced in Peintures, gravures et dessins de Alfred Jarry, published by Collège de pataphysique, 1968, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6248594

Kneehigh have kept some other features of Jarry’s play (like the talking, renegade bear), but change several to highlight the parallels with some of today’s more egregiously outspoken, bigoted and narcissistic leaders. Preening President Dallas, for example, has a pointedly blonde, initially vapid and complicit daughter called Bobbi (played by Kyla Goodey; like most of the cast, she played other roles, in her case as a…well, I don’t know what to call it: sort of crowd-rouser and chorus.)

Jarry (1873-1907) was just 23 when his play was first performed. The absurd, strutting, obese, grotesque figure of Ubu is said to have been based on his old physics schoolteacher. His uniquely original theatrical debut made Jarry a prototypical punk superstar. His playful, irreverent use of language, liberally laced with expletives and toilet humour, is retained with gleeful vigour by Kneehigh; our 12-year-old grandson was shocked by some of the more outrageous stuff – but he’s a bit of a prude.

Jarry was a forerunner of Dada and Surrealism, and invented the term ‘pataphysics (the redundant apostrophe is intentional). It’s defined as the science of the realm beyond metaphysics, a typically absurdist spin on a serious concept. It’s also been called the science of imaginary solutions, concerned with the laws governing exceptions – the repressed part of a rule that ensures that the rule doesn’t work (obviously).

He owes a debt to earlier literary iconoclasts like Rabelais and perhaps Cervantes. There’s also a nod towards the dynastic tragedies of classical theatre (his title and plot in Ubu Roi parodies aspects of Oedipus Rex). He clearly influenced some of his contemporaries like Apollinaire, and later figures from Oulipo, including Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec, as well as Ionesco, Genet, Boris Vian and others.

This is all starting to sound very serious and highbrow – but Kneehigh’s Ubu Karaoke gave us as much fun as a theatrical experience as we can remember. The MC (Niall Ashdown) played a deadpan commentator and instigator of mayhem, and produced some brilliant improvised jokes. The deposed President, Nick Dallas, was played with sinister swagger by the excellent and splendidly named Dom Coyote, who also played a mean guitar in the house band.

Tom Jackson-Greaves was responsible for the energetic choreography (Kneehigh specialise in physical musical theatre), and came on to do an astonishing solo in the guise of a fourth-wall-breaking barman (there’s a working bar doing a brisk trade throughout the performance).

I can’t finish without praising the astonishing cross-dressing lead players. Katy Owen played Mr Ubu, a diminutive but terrifyingly outrageous performance with an accent that mangled Cardiff with something unidentifiable and totally weird. Mrs Ubu was portrayed by Mike Shepherd (who started Kneehigh back in 1980) as a sort of psychotic panto dame.

If you are in the area I’d urge you to see experience Ubu Karaoke; its run continues until August 25. I don’t think it’s touring, but Kneehigh’s Fup is revived and playing in various venues across the country. We’re taking the granddaughter to see their show The Dancing Frog next week – it’s based on the Quentin Blake story, and looks great fun, too.

See also my post on Kneehigh’s Asylum performance two summers ago: The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – based on the story of the artist Marc Chagall.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk

Flying lovers with title

Poster from the Globe website

Last Thursday my wife and I went to see Kneehigh Theatre’s current production in their ‘Asylum’ mode – a marquee pitched in the grounds of The Lost Gardens of Heligan, just outside St Austell – of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, which relates the life of the artist Marc Chagall, focusing on his relationship with Bella Rosenfeld; they met in 1909 when she was 20 and he was 21. They married in 1914. Kneehigh is a Cornish company specialising in high octane musical drama: not ‘plays’ in the traditional theatrical sense.

Kneehigh Asylum marquee

Kneehigh Asylum marquee

The Flying Lovers is typical of their exuberant style. Kneehigh love to use traditional stories, folktales and legends, imbuing their performances with music, dance and an energy that can border on the frenetic – but always entertaining and innovative.

TFLOV was written by Daniel Jamieson, and directed by Emma Rice, a long-time stalwart of the company, in her final production before taking up her new role as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

The first and stronger half of the play shows their whirlwind courtship and early married life. While they were engaged Chagall left for Paris, where he became the darling of the avant-garde artistic world, developing his own unique take on contemporary trends, from Cubism through Fauvism to Surrealism.

Marc Antolin, who plays Chagall, has a gangling charm and convincingly portrayed his ingenuous sense of purpose: he was determined to make it as a painter – at all costs, sometimes including the feelings and wishes of his adoring Bella (played by Audrey Brisson), herself a talented, intelligent woman, but who sublimated her own creativity as a writer and actor to nurture his rather egotistical ambition. On one occasion he thoughtlessly disparaged her writings, and in another more shocking scene tore a page from her creative writing notebook to make a paper butterfly for their new baby. He didn’t mean to be cruel, but Bella’s pain was evident.

They both came from Vitebsk, a city in what became after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution a part of the Soviet Union. As Jews they were confined to the shtetl, had to show passports in their own country if they wanted to travel, and were highly constrained in terms of career and social life. When the revolution came they hoped their lives would become freer, but the opposite happened. Eventually they were able to escape the stifling Soviet regime and travel the world, artistic refugees.

This production was excellent at showing how artistic creativity can triumph over oppression and hardship; the love between Marc and Audrey was palpable, and delightfully conveyed through some remarkable visual imagery that ingeniously replicated some of Chagall’s iconic, vibrantly colourful paintings.

Mobile of the flying lovers   hanging from the roof of the refreshment tent

Mobile of the flying lovers hanging from the roof of the refreshment tent

The one that sticks out in my mind is that of the entwined lovers, sinuously embracing and kissing, as Bella hands Marc a bunch of flowers for his birthday. Obviously the earth-bound actors couldn’t replicate Chagall’s trademark disdain for gravity in his subjects, but with their animation and charm, Brisson and Antolin were able to convince the audience that they really were flying.

These intimate, romantic scenes were the most successful in the performance. They were offset by those conveying the grim history of the first decades of history in Russia. Vitebsk was gradually and systematically destroyed during the course of the two World Wars, ongoing pogroms, and a Soviet system even more brutal towards the Jewish people than that of the tsars. Chagall was denigrated by the Bolsheviks for displaying bourgeois individualism in his groundbreaking artistic style, and like so many artists of the avant-garde had to ignore the critics and political enemies who despised him.

Audrey Brisson has a beautiful voice and moved and danced elegantly. Her duets with Antolin were poignant and heartbreaking by turns. The two multi-instrumental musicians, Ian Goss and James Gow, managed to sound like a small orchestra, and played with skilful animation, often participating in the action and joining in with the songs.

I particularly enjoyed the close, haunting harmonies of the four players when they sang what sounded like Slavic or Yiddish folksongs – some in the original languages. The other dominant mode was jazz, played and sung with panache, and a highly appropriate way of illustrating through music the exuberant, extraordinary work of an artist who proudly incorporated images and motifs into nearly all he painted from his Jewish heritage and provincial background – his fiddler on the roof inspired the later musical, while his rabbis and animals (green cows, winged fish) uncompromisingly populate his scenes of his beloved Belarussian homeland.

The Asylum aspect of Kneehigh’s touring company reminds us, as the programme notes and the displays in the refreshment tents indicate, of the continuing plight of refugees like the Chagalls, fleeing today’s war-zones and murderous intolerance in Syria, Afghanistan and too many other places to mention. Kneehigh Asylum also provide us, through this and other productions to come, of our responsibilities as fellow human beings towards these desperate, frightened people who’ve lost everything.

I’d urge you to catch any performance you can.