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Archive Item:

Ubu! – a note from Mike Shepherd

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Read more on Ubu! – a note from Mike Shepherd from the Kneehigh Cookbook archive.

Mike Shepherd as Mrs Ubu. Image by Steve Tanner

Kneehigh’s Ubu is about responding to the challenge of keeping theatre alive. We do theatre because it’s live but how do we keep it alive?

I’ve always liked sport.

I like being physical, playing in a team, getting sweaty, being in a heightened state of alertness, being brilliant, helping others to be brilliant, but over and above everything, BEING PART OF A TEAM with a shared aspiration beyond individual achievement: to play well, to score, to win or, in theatre, to tell a story, to engage an audience and transport them to somewhere they didn’t expect to be.

Why is sport so popular and so riveting for so many? It’s because it’s live and, more than that, it’s alive.
Theatre should be like stepping onto a tightrope every night, not plodding down a well-trodden path.
Even when you’re on your 300th performance there should still be a sense of spontaneity, a fizz of adrenaline and a feeling that the actors themselves don’t quite know what’s going to happen.

We also wanted to counter our more regular form of touring proscenium stages. This is partly because we wanted to reinvigorate our way of presenting theatre, partly through a hunger to keep taking risks with ways of working and exploring form and partly through necessity. Let’s not forget that the English touring circuit is in considerable difficulties following 10 years of cuts and an increasing anxiety throughout the country which has generally made it necessary to find different ways of putting on shows. We wanted to create an immediate, accessible and collective experience where the audience could join in if they wanted to-sing their hearts out or dance with a stranger if they felt like it.

This a picture of Alfred Jarry’s revolting teacher upon whom he based the character of Ubu.

I identified with Jarry. I had a difficult schooling filled with repugnant teachers who all seemed to have greasy collars and acute dandruff

I have painful memories of school from as early as 5 years old when I was stood in a rubbish bin and told that I was rubbish. Of course, not all my schooldays were rubbish but they did leave me feeling like an outsider with a desire to do things differently – much like Jarry.

I also railed against institutions, establishment and the perceived order of things – much like Jarry.

I loved this spiral – synonymous with Ubu – an umbilical cord but also a symbol of order into chaos and back to order which kind of describes how I make theatre, travelling between order and chaos and back again with freedom and joyful anarchy.

White Line spiral on a black background with light white dots.


Jarry’s story of Ubu, a revolting deranged dictator where Jarry flushed all that he abhorred down the toilet – those in power, injustices, regulations, corruptions and cruelties.

I am drawn to Jarry’s risk- taking and ridiculous view of the world always tinged with humour. For example, his theories of Pataphysics. Jarry invented Pataphysics and describes it as ‘“science of imaginary solutions”. Look at these paintings by Pataphysics disciple, Alphonse Allais:

Scan titled Drunks Wandering about in fog. Block of Khaki colour within black line frame.

Scan of blank sheet music for Kneehigh's Ubu. Titled Marche Funébre.Scan of picture tomatoes in Red Sea. Block of red colour within a black line frame.  

I also loved that in Ubu, there’s a bear for no good reason.

Kneehigh’s Ubu is there to be enjoyed – make what you will of it – it’s hard to define.

Part theatre, part gig, part stand-up, part game show and almost a riot.

Like Jarry’s original it breaks all the rules. They need breaking!


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