ALFRED Jarry’s ground-breaking political parable Ubu Roi caused riots when first staged in Paris in 1896. Now, Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire promises an equally riotous night out at Leeds Playhouse’s Quarry Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday.
Conceived by Carl Grose, Charles Hazlewood and Mike Shepherd, it smashes together Jarry’s gleefully rude and deliberately childish script with a crowd-pleasing singalong, party games, inflatable animals and contemporary political satire.
Kneehigh’s Ubu! is a punk-spirited, comedic study of power, protest and populism. “And what better form of popular culture to demonstrate this than mass karaoke?”, ask the Cornish company.
The show is led by Katy Owen’s tiny, tyrannical Pa Ubu and Mike Shepherd’s pouting, preening Ma Ubu, alongside the ever-versatile Kneehigh ensemble: a six-strong cast and the band The Sweaty Bureaucrats.
Arranged by Hazlewood, the selection of songs is inventive and cannily chosen, ranging from Britney Spears’ Toxic and Edwin Starr’s War to Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk and The Carpenters’ Close To You, as a festival atmosphere builds.
Writer and co-director Carl Grose explains how Ubu! came to fruition and why the petty protagonist still resonates with modern audiences. “When Alfred Jarry’s play received its premiere at the Théâtre de l’OEuvre in Paris on December 10 1896, there was, so the story goes, a full-on riot,” he says.
“Audiences and critics alike were confronted with sights and sounds of such outrageousness that pandemonium broke out and the production was shut down after only two performances.”
Grose continues: “Like all great artists, Alfred Jarry was a disrupter, and Ubu was his weapon of mass disruption. A personification of chaos, a lord of misrule, a howling, hysterical metaphor for greed, lies and corruption.
“The main character was designed to be both laughed at and despised, and that’s still the case. He is here to gather us together as his prisoners, his acolytes, his victims – or his potential usurpers.
“He is a reminder that those in power will do their damnedest to make their reality our normality. It’s up to us to collectively remember that there’s nothing normal about Ubu and his ilk.”
Ubu’s behaviour beggars belief, concludes Grose. “He is cruel, nonsensical, cowardly, aggressive and beyond vile in his actions,” he says. “Career mad, he looks totally ridiculous, puts money over humanity in a heartbeat and has a vocabulary that leaves a lot to be desired. What an absurd creation, eh?”
Prepare for a Kneehigh antidote to a divided world that makes a stand against divisiveness and brings audiences together through the joyful act of singing
Kneehigh’s Ubu! A Singalong Satire, Quarry Theatre, Leeds Playhouse, February 4 to 8. Box office: 0113 213 7700 or at leedsplayhouse.org.uk.