The Co-Artistic director of Kneehigh chatted to Emma Clarendon about Kneehigh’s production of Ubu – A Singalong satre.

(c)Steve Tanner.

Thanks so much for talking to me. What can we expect from Ubu? Hopefully you won’t expect anything it at all! It’s a show that’s full of surprises. I can tell you it isn’t your typical “sit down in your plush red seats and fold your arms and watch a show” type show. We’re trying something different with this one. Yes, you’ll get Alfred Jarry’s brilliantly anarchic play, that’s for sure. But you’ll also get Kneehigh firing on all of our spontaneous cylinders. It’s rough and ready, and a riot. It’s also a heart-warming singalong. What can I say? It’s an event!   

What was it about Alfred Jarry’s play that first caught your attention? I first read Ubu Roi as a student. I was blown away by its anarchy. It’s like the theatrical blueprint for The Young Ones. It’s a play that’s so free it’s mad. It tears up the theatrical rule book and does what it wants. It’s a bizarre and very crude comedy, a political commentary on the abuse of power (although Jarry would, I think, disagree), it’s a pastiche on Shakespeare. And of course it was all of these elements combined that caused such outrage when it premiered in Paris in 1897. Audiences freaked in part because the first word spoken is “SHIT!” but also, more interestingly, that it broke every theatre convention of the time – which was Naturalism. For me, Jarry’s play was punk before there was punk. And I love that about it.  

How did the concept for the show come about? Myself and Mike Shepherd (who directed this with me and who plays Mrs Ubu) and Charles Hazlewood (composer of our shows Dead Dog in a Suitcase and The Tin Drum) were sat around talking ideas about what to do next. We’d just done The Tin Drum, where we’d turned Gunter Grass’s surreal post war novel into an opera. I think it’s safe to say we all wanted to do something less stringent in form. I said I’d always loved the play and that Mike was born to play that should play Ubu. Mike said he wanted to do something more spontaneous and more improvisatory. Charles then said he’d always wanted to do a show where the audience sang. We all had different ideas. Different desires. But then came the notion of combining them and suddenly the whole thing came to life! We could all have our cake and eat it! For me it became more than just me doing a straight version of Ubu. It found its form. A singalong with the audience at its heart. And we were away. Mike didn’t want to play Ubu though. He wanted to play his wife. That’s life.

(c)Steve Tanner.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Ubu? I hope they have a great time first and foremost. I hope that in these divisive times they feel like they’ve been a part of something. It’s about coming together. We all feel better after a singsong. And if our band don’t get you rockin’ I don’t know what will.  

If you had to describe the show what would you say? I’d say the brilliance of this show is that it’s stubbornly indescribable! We wanted to make something that wasn’t the norm. That breaks rules. That is wild and fun and rude and heart-warming. We aimed high. It’s many things. A marketing department’s nightmare. But what’s the point in doing what everyone else does? I think Alfred Jarry would agree with that.

By Emma Clarendon

Kneehigh’s Ubu! Will play at the Shoreditch Townhall until the 21st December before embarking on a UK tour.

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