Read more on Ubu! – Interview with Carl Grose from the Kneehigh Cookbook archive.
Why did you want to make Ubu?
Well, I’d read Alfred Jarry’s play, Ubu Roi, back in college and loved it. It was clearly a very unique play. Very anarchic, nonsensical and disgusting. It broke rules. It went wherever it pleased. I loved the cartoon violence in it and always remembered one amazing stage direction in it which described King Ubu just walking straight through a door – it felt like the precursor to The Young Ones! I didn’t really think about how it satirised political leaders and the abuse of power at the time. But every now and then the idea would bubble up, as ideas often do in life or the rehearsal room, and I always thought Mike (Shepherd) would make an ideal King Ubu. It was after making The Tin Drum, (which, like Dead Dog before it, was an ambitious and politically relevant piece) that the pertinence of Ubu took hold. It suddenly seemed to be about now.
The idea started to roll, and I wondered why the hell Kneehigh hadn’t ever done Ubu before – it was a match made in heaven! The anarchy, the politics, the satire. Come on! I told Mike he was born to play Ubu. He said he was actually born to play Mrs Ubu – which made perfect sense and away we went! Sort of.
Tell us about the process of making the play?
So I should explain that while I pitched Ubu to my fellow collaborators, both Mike and Charles (the composer of Dead Dog and The Tin Drum) both had other very different ideas about what they were interested in doing. Charles expressed an interest in creating a piece where the audience sang the show. Imagine everyone singing Dark Side of the Moon together, for example. Amazing! And then Mike had a desire to make something a little more improvised, a bit more spontaneous, which is fair enough after the very exacting script and score process of Dead Dog and The Tin Drum. I suggested that we slam the three ideas together. Which seemed to spark for me. It made it more than just doing Ubu.
We suddenly had a new form which felt mad and fresh and exciting. We started to make a kind of surreal part-improvised jukebox musical. I wrote a loose structure. Rewrote and modernised the scenes from the play. Tried to invent a new world for it.
Because Jarry’s world is a kind of strange amalgamation of various Shakespeare plays. We went down this route for a bit, but it felt the more modern the better. The scenes were starting points as we really wanted impro to be a big part of the process. We cast some incredible improvisers. Katy Owen and Niall Ashdown are just so skilled at improv, and in very different ways. Niall has a brilliant tap into modern thinking, and politics, he can make up R.E.M. songs on the spot, it’s insane. Katy is a wildly outrageous deviser. Ubu is foul-mouthed but he ain’t got nothin’ on Katy! She was perfectly cast as Ubu. Along with the brilliance of the Kneehigh stalwarts, Mike, Giles, Kyla and Robi – every performer had a skill in spontaneity and they needed to be brave and bold with their choices.
For various reasons, we only had two weeks to make the show – which is seriously no time at all. We needed to find the time for scenes to be discovered and played with, but I was also very aware that we couldn’t keep improvising and playing as we would have done in a longer rehearsal process. So I’d write up each scene from that day, adding whatever good impro was found, and we’d rehearse that the next day… And so forth. There was never time to finesse or polish anything. But that was absolutely perfect – luckily! And then there was the band, the songs… it was a brilliant and feverish process!
How have you adapted Jarry’s original for today’s audience?
Well, one of the things I’m most pleased about with our show is that I think we’ve done the original play really well. Jarry was our spiritual guide. His ground-breaking and highly controversial notions of theatre in his lifetime are absolutely how we think about making theatre with Kneehigh. He hated “realistic” painted backdrops – tropes of the naturalistic style at the time. When he wrote that Ubu enters riding a horse, he says either come in on a REAL horse or, even better, a cardboard one. Cardboard became our lead aesthetic for this show. Throwaway. Hand-made. Cheap. Punky. So on a level, I feel we’ve collaborated well with him and hopefully done his work justice.
But as I said earlier, we also had to find a modern spin for it. The political satire of his play is so brilliantly on-point right now. Ubu is this grotesque fool, a monster hungry for power, ruled by greed and self-interest. It’s Trump! It’s Boris! It’s Putin! It’s all of them. But the proto-surrealism and the infamous language in his play has dated. Of course, it has. It was written in 1896 for god’s sake. Which is why I think the genius of Charles’ karaoke – or massaoke – singalong concept is genius. Using these songs – Brittany, Elvis, Bruno Mars, Tina Turner – we’ve got ‘em all! These songs collide with the scenes and do provide a kind of Dennis Potter-ish pop surrealism which is surprising and fun and strange.
And Mike’s desire to find moments of impro and genuine “aliveness” and interaction with our audience (we have them standing up, singing along, joining in games) makes for a really exciting and unpredictable night. We’ve taken the world’s first Absurdist Drama and disguised it as a cracking good night out – and I reckon Alfred Jarry would’ve approved.
How do you think the play reflects the world today?
One of the main things Jarry was doing with his play was poking fun at authority. The play started its infant life as a sketch he wrote as a student about his tyrannical school teacher. This was the seed for the character. And so ultimately this is what the play does, on a grand scale. Satirises (or just plain takes the piss out of) figures of authority. The abuse of power. Injustice. Maybe that’s more our version. We’ve probably tidied it up and made more sense of it – but hopefully not too much! There’s a brilliant scene in the second half of the play where Ubu throws everyone “down the hatch”. We turned it into a toilet, but it’s the same idea. His monomaniacal disregard for everyone but himself is so recognisable in our leaders today. It’s Punch and Judy writ large.
I hope there’s something therapeutic about seeing this show. Singing together in protest. Laughing at the buffoon. Weeping for the world. The play is also mad. Absurd. Characters burst into Brittany Spears songs. They have strange dreams. There’s a bear! Speaking of which, we brought the show back this summer and the actor who played the Bear wasn’t available. So we had to figure out a way of someone else to do it. Mrs Ubu got the job. So we revealed it like a big twist! Mrs Ubu was the Bear all along?! As Ubu says: “That doesn’t make any sense!” To which I had Mrs Ubu reply: “Nothing makes any sense anymore, Mr Ubu! The world’s gone mad!” It might be a bit trite, but it’s something I believe.
Why did you decide to do the show as a singalong satire?
I may have answered this already. But to sum it up – it felt right. It felt surprising. It felt different. It felt exciting and entertaining. The piece is pop surrealism. One moment, it’s bizarre singing Hello by Lionel Ritchie, but the next it accrues an emotional weight and you feel moved. That’s what the songs do so brilliantly. And by the end of the night, we’ve all been through something together. And in a time when there’s division everywhere, and there’s lies and bullshit and lawbreaking coming down from the top, and democracy hangs by a thread, being together suddenly feels not just joyful, but radical too.