Directed by Kneehigh’s Co-Artistic Directors Carl Grose and Mike Shepherd, and originally staged at the Asylum, Ubu! A Singalong Satire will play at London’s Shoreditch Town Hall in December, as the perfect alternative Christmas show. It will then embark on a mini UK tour, travelling to Bristol Marble Factory, The Lowry, Salford and Leeds Playhouse.
Inspired by Alfred Jarry’s riot inducing masterpiece from 1896, this semi-improvised musical-in-promenade puts the audience firmly at its heart.
Ubu! A Singalong Satire is at Shoreditch Townhall 4th – 21st December 2019. Full tour details and tickets can be found here.
Ubu is coming to Shoreditch Town hall ahead of a mini UK tour. What can you tell us about it?
I read Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi back when I was a student many years ago and it really blew me away. It’s a play that was written in the late 1800s and it had its first premiere in Paris where it was shut down after two performances because of two things. Firstly the play itself is very profane with lots of ridiculous juvenile swearing in it; it’s very crude, very scatological, there’s a lot of toilet humour in it which was very unexpected in the 1890s.
But ultimately it got shut down because the audience were so outraged that it broke all the theatrical conventions. At the time everything was very naturalistic – painted backdrops of fields and things like that – and people pretended that theatre was quite a real thing. Whereas Alfred Jarry, this sort of madman, just tried something very very different, and to my mind very punk. His way of doing the play was using cardboard, and mimed doors as opposed to real doors in his set, and people just couldn’t believe it – people were like, “this is disgusting!” which is hilarious. I love that it’s an anarchic play that breaks all the rules. And I always thought, with the characters of Ma and Pa Ubu who are these monsters, these very very extreme characters, that it would be perfect for Kneehigh.
When we first started doing the show, we knew it was going to feel like a ‘popup’ and feel very ‘recycled’ – quite throwaway. And we only found out later that Jarry said, “If you bring a horse on stage, either have an actor with a cardboard horse’s head, or bring on a real horse.” Kneehigh and Alfred Jarry would have got along very well.
Why is now the right time to do this show?
I read it years ago and always had it in the back of my head that Mike Shepherd would be the perfect Ubu (although it turns out he wanted to play Mrs Ubu, so there we are) but what made it the show we had to do now is the political landscape of right now. The play is about a king – Ubu – who murders his way to the top and dominates Europe (in Jarry’s play). We have a President, not a King, in our play, which resonates with everything that we’re going through right now in the world. A dictator basically who takes over the world, is immeasurably greedy, cannot bear to tell the truth, destroys people and pretends he hasn’t. So it seemed really like the time was now to tell this story.
Where did the idea of a singalong come from?
Mike Shepherd, Charles Hazlewood and I made a couple of shows together [Dead dog in a suitcase, The Tin Drum] and I think it was after the Tin Drum when we were all sat in a pub thinking, What shall we do next? And I said I really want to do Ubu. Mike said he wanted to do a more spontaneous, ‘old-school’ Kneehigh show, with impro, all that kind of stuff. And Charles then said he had always had this idea about the audience singing along, the audience being a character.
He was talking about taking a concept album, like Dark Side of the Moon or whatever, finding a story around that and having a live band and the audience singing. And I said – What happens if we mash them all up together? So, you have a singalong element to Ubu? Which was suddenly exciting and means that the audience are really engaged with it. From there we decided it should be a standing show, and it became a bigger and bigger event – the audience will play games! take part in war! It was very experimental and we didn’t know how it was going to work.
Turns out on the opening night the audience just went for it. So, it was great. It’s really lovely, it feels like you’re all in it together. That idea of the audience being part of a community taken over by Ubu at the beginning, and that by the end they’re singing at Ubu to bring him down – it becomes quite moving in a way: no matter what you believe or think you’ve all had this shared experience and you’ve brought this divisive character to his knees and come out singing.
What’s your favourite moment in the show?
My favourite song in the show is The House of Rising Sun. The version we do is Janis Joplin’s version. It was an old folk American folk song, made famous by The Animals. And the scene is when the president’s daughter, Bobbi, stumbles upon her father’s shredded remains (which is basically a pile of shredded paper, because that’s our aesthetic) and she does a kind of expressive dance to House of the Rising Sun. It’s the end of Act One and it ends with Ubu installing a giant toilet and crowning himself King of the World. It really rocks outs.
What should audiences expect when they come to see Ubu?
Expect the unexpected! It’s a show that’s full of surprises. Hopefully you’ll get a version of Ubu (if that’s what you’ve come for) but you’ll get a load more: Kneehigh firing on all their spontaneous cylinders. It’s incredibly funny it’s political, but ultimately, it’s about coming together and experiencing this event together under one roof. It’s not about sitting down in a darkened theatre, folding your arms and watching a show. You ARE the show. Come with an open mind and you’ll have a brilliant night.
What are you looking forward to about coming back to Bristol?
We love coming back to Bristol. Were really chuffed that Bristol Old Vic is supporting us in trying this crazy show in a new venue. Ubu’s not a show for sit-down theatres. We want to try doing it in the Marble Factory in Bristol, a Victorian warehouse that is now a nightclub and music venue. The minute we went in we knew it would be amazing. We’re really excited about taking this show to that venue, and trying something new in Bristol.