Nick Morgan and crew
Review by Nick Morgan
BRING ME THE HEAD OF UBU ROI
Pere Ubu with Gagarin and
the Brothers Quay, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London,
April 25th, 2008.
isn’t a concert. It’s a play, of sorts.
It’s a performance. At times it seems like
a bloody fiasco. But it’s David Thomas and
and you can therefore be sure of one thing, it won’t
lack interest, provocation or humour. What we’re
watching is the second of two performances of Mr
Thomas’ adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s
controversial play, Ubu
Roi, renamed ‘Bring me the head of Ubu
Roi’. First performed in 1896 the play provoked
uproar from its opening lines, “Merdre, Merdre”,
was confrontational, absurd, and deeply funny (three
words which might well apply, one could think, to
the work of Mr Thomas, an admirer of Jarry from
his youth). The absinthe-drinking Jarry, of course,
was also the founder of the Pataphysics
movement, dedicated to “the science of
imaginary solutions’, whose devotees (in addition
to Mr Thomas) include such luminaries as Kevin Ayers
and Robert Wyatt. It is, of course, a piece of nonsense,
just like this evening.
performance ‘stars’ Thomas as Pere Ubu,
and former Communards vocalist and noted jazz-singer
Jane Morris as Mere Ubu, The band, and guest
perform the remainder of the roles with greater
or lesser degrees of competence. The performance
is sprinkled with a number of songs ‘in the
Pere Ubu style’, whilst Gagarin provides a
richly-textured aural backdrop, a counter to the
visual environment created by the Brothers Quay.
for the plot – well, I guess it’s about
greed and avarice with not a shred of redemption
in sight, an uncomfortable mirror to stand up against
nineteenth, and for that matter, twenty-first century
stage is bare – the band are squeezed in on
the right hand side, and whilst not performing Thomas
and Morris lounge on chairs on the left. Thomas
introduces each scene with a short narrative of
what is about to unfold – an afterthought
following the first night (which in Thomas’
words was also ‘a bit of a shambles’)
when it became apparent that no one knew what was
going on. He’s getting more and more like
that grumpy and lovable old uncle who comes to stay
at Christmas, gets drunk and generally disgraces
himself, and scandalises your parents. His narrative
voice, half exasperated, half bored (“so many
pieces of paper, so little time” he sighs
as he struggles to find the right sheet) sounds
like a cross between W C Fields and Sylvester
the Cat – I half expected him to come
out with "Sufferin’ succotash!".
Ubu he’s a grotesque in his now trademark
raincoat (where is the whippet I wonder?). As he
takes his position centre stage he’s accompanied
by electronic squelches, squeaks and farts. And
as the evening progresses it becomes apparent that
he’s very fussy about his farts, stepping
out of character (or is he?) to berate his band
when they forget the farts, or use the wrong ones
– “I want the fucking long farts. I
told you fuckers the long farts. Long farts!”.
These rages, a stratagem for covering up flaws or
glitches in the performance, become more frequent,
despairing and entertaining as the evening goes
on, and as the tightly-knit spectacle slowly unwinds.
Towards the end Thomas falls into his chair –
“ I told them we’d never get this fucking
right and you know what, everyone hates a know-it-all
when he’s fucking right”.
Thomas and Morris manage to turn the menacing, plotting,
untrusting and murderous Ubus into a slightly more
sinister version of Roald Dahl’s The
Twits. They’re dark, but never too dark
(although certainly too dark to take photographs).
It’s almost like pantomime without the ghastly
television ‘celebrities’, a sort of
Carry On Pataphysics, with a slightly unnerving
edge created by the visuals and soundtrack.
believe me, for all the mistakes it’s thoroughly
engaging and compelling. I’m not sure what
the audience expected, and was surprised that so
many left at the interval – it’s David
Thomas, what on earth did they expect? Even some
of those who made it back couldn’t stick it
to the end, to Thomas’s final jibe, “I
spit on your applause”. A shame. I’ve
rarely left a theatre feeling quite as entertained.
Merdre! - Nick Morgan (intermission photograph
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