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!
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.
It’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.
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.