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.

Disiecta Membra

Something of a ‘disiecta membra’ about today’s post.  The expression, in case you’re not familiar with it, is from Horace’s Satire 1.4, in which he appears to be praising the poet Ennius; he says that even if the words in Ennius’s poems were rearranged it would still be possible to discern ‘the scattered limbs of a poet’ – ‘disjecti membra poetae’.  Nowadays the phrase tends to be used for any collection of scattered literary or artistic fragments.

While mulling over several blog projects (Renata Adler’s Speedboat review; Adalbert Stifter and Elizabeth von Arnim, among others) I thought I’d fill the hiatus while those pieces marinate with a few ‘fragments’ of linguistic or literary origin.  I’ll embolden the relevant words in the quotations that follow; all definitions and etymologies are from the OED, unless stated otherwise.

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Early in Laurence Sterne’s magnificently dotty shaggy dog story The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy the narrator refers to ‘literary histories’ of the past, and their ‘terrible battles, yclept logomachies’.  I rather like that cluster of nouns with the –omachy suffix (which signifies ‘fighting’ in Greek; logos of course is ‘word’).  The OED defines it as ‘a contention about words’, with the earliest instance of its use dated 1569.  I hope to write about the Centauromachy – the battle of the centaurs with the Lapiths at a wedding feast – another time.

On the following page Sterne writes of Tristram’s  Uncle Toby’s wound in the groin, sustained when he was in the army, and how he was eventually able to talk about this embarrassing badge of honour:

He was enabled, by the help of some marginal documents…together with Gobesius’ military architecture and pyroballogy, translated from the Flemish, to form his discourse.

The note in my Penguin edition glosses this as ‘the study of the art of casting fire’ – presumably in the military sense, as in artillery.  OED says this is from the Greek ballein, ‘to throw’, from which the word ‘ballistic’ derives, and defines the term as ‘The study of artillery; the art of using explosives to launch missiles’.  Only two citations are given, one from Sterne’s usage here (1760), the other from  1738 (although the earlier form, ‘pyrobology’ is dated 1728).

Another cluster of words I pondered a while ago started with looking up sarcoma: ‘A tumour composed of embryonic connective tissue. Now applied to almost any malignant tumour not derived from epithelial tissue…  Other classifications of cancers are the carcinomas, which arise in the epithelia; the leukemias and lymphomas arise in the blood-forming cells’. So naturally one then has to look up epithelium: ‘A non-vascular tissue forming the outer layer of the mucous membrane in animals.’

Sarcoma derives from Greek sarx or sark, ‘flesh’.   Cognates include sarcophagus, which originally signified ‘A kind of stone reputed among the Greeks to have the property of consuming the flesh of dead bodies deposited in it, and consequently used for coffins (attested from 1601-1750), and then  (from 1705) ‘A stone coffin, esp. one embellished with sculptures or bearing inscriptions, etc.’   Then there’s sarcophagy, ‘the practice of eating flesh’, first cited in Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1658); the only other OED citation is from HG Wells in 1901.

Pseudodoxia epidemica (image from Amazon website)

Pseudodoxia epidemica (image from Amazon website)

The –phagy element derives from the Greek phagein, ‘eat’.

Amazonomachy marble sarcophagus from Salonica, Archaeological Museum of Thessalonki (photo: Wikipedia)

Amazonomachy marble sarcophagus from Salonica, Archaeological Museum of Thessalonki (photo: Wikipedia)

And there we are: another -omachy: this one relates to the battles between the Amazons and the ancient Greeks.

I find these things lead me deeper into linguistic labyrinths, as happens when following hyperlinks on the internet.  So then I turned to sarcosaprophagous creatures (usually insects like the parasitoid wasps Hymenoptera) which feed on dead or decaying flesh.

The best known are Flesh Flies (Diptera – ie Flies: Sarcophagidae),  which are ‘ovoviviparous, which means that eggs are not deposited upon full development. Instead, the larvae hatch inside of their mother’s “uterus” and are held until a proper host is found. The term used to describe the release of the larvae onto the host is

larviposition… Female flesh flies deposit their 1st instar larvae directly on the host and the larvae commence feeding immediately. These larvae eat and develop rapidly. Approximately five days after larviposition, the larvae are already in their 3rd instar and are almost ready to pupate. When the larvae are ready to pupate, they leave the host and wander until they find a suitable location.  (University of Florida website)

I rather admire the notion of ‘wandering’ larvae, seeking a suitable place to pupate.

Dorsal view of adult male Sarcophaga crassipalpis Macquart, a flesh fly. Photograph by Lazaro A. Diaz, University of Florida.

Dorsal view of adult male Sarcophaga crassipalpis Macquart, a flesh fly. Photograph by Lazaro A. Diaz, University of Florida.

The word sarcosaprophagous comes from Greek sapros, rotten – compare ‘saprobe’: ‘Any organism that derives its nourishment from decaying organic matter’.

Maybe next time I’ll be able to return to more salubrious, literary matters.