Tiger Lillies, 7 Deadly Sins / Pere Ubu, Bring me the Head of Ubu Roi

Review in Issue 20-2 | Summer 2008

Two shows, two legendary anarchic post-punk music groups with a penchant for the occasional dabble in theatre and/or multi-media performance.

Tiger Lillies are well known to theatregoers (of the alternative variety) for the ‘junk opera’ Shockheaded Peter, a groundbreaking collaboration with Improbable members Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott. Since that tremendous success, the group have had numerous bashes at creating a theatre show for themselves. The latest is 7 Deadly Sins, in which the Tiger Lillies’ grotesque Grand Guignol-inspired songs – terrifyingly funny paeans to murder and mayhem – are reworked or otherwise reordered into an account of the world’s super vices, aided and abetted by a mildly entertaining burlesque performer Ophelia Bitz, and an ‘updated’ gay Punch and Judy booth show by Nathan Evans. (Mr Punch is evidently a source of inspiration to the band – this is the second Tiger Lillies show centred around our hook-nosed friend.)

The worst sin evidenced is that the intrinsically theatrical Tiger Lillies seem somehow dampened down, castrated almost, by the structure of the show (which lacks any real dramaturgical logic or impulse). The usually riveting Martyn Jacques seems somehow caged by the fourth wall, unsure of his place in the on-stage action, veering awkwardly between being ‘actor’ and ‘musician’. Why do they do it? Why not just be the Tiger Lillies? Seeing the group in a cabaret setting (as, for example, I had just a few months earlier at the Komedia in Brighton) is theatre enough for me – they really don’t need to add on the theatrical trimmings, which are over-egging the pudding. But if they really do want to make another ‘proper’ theatre piece, I’d urge them to get help where it is needed – collaborate with someone who understands how to make theatre.

Pere Ubu were once described as the world’s only expressionist rock-and-roll band. The band’s main-man is the big-bodied and gruff-voiced David Thomas. Having named his band after Alfred Jarry’s tale of the King of Grotesque, I suppose it was only a matter of time before Ubu did Ubu – and Thomas in middle age is an obvious choice to play the carnivalesque tyrant and anti-hero, Pere Ubu. This new production for Ether 08 thus realises an ambition he has had since ‘being turned on to Alfred Jarry as a 16 year-old high school student in Cleveland, Ohio’. So if the reworking and staging of this play was a long-term grand ambition, what of the realisation?

In Thomas’ production, we encounter a similar problem to the Tiger Lillies’ show: though full of interesting component parts, the end result feels devoid of any theatrical skill. There is an impressive array of collaborators on board, but where’s the director and/ or dramaturg in all this? Ah yes, you cry, this is the point! This was Jarry’s intention in creating Ubu Roi (in 1896!) – to make anti-theatre in order to shock and outrage the consumers of culture. Yes, yes, I know. But unlike that first audience, we’ve suffered the slings and arrows of a half-century of knowing, ironic, so-bad-it’s-good postmodern performance. I don’t want to watch lousy actors playing at being lousy actors. I don’t want to go to a festival at a renowned arts centre to see people make work with zero physical presence and performance skills that would shame first-year undergraduates. In discussion with friends in the bar during the interval, we agree that the only way this production might have recaptured the shock of the original would be if it were presented in a pub, to an audience of angry heavy metal fans. The flying bottles would maybe have added the required edge.

There are saving graces, and the second half is at least better than the first: when Thomas stops playing the in-and-out-of-the-action game and growls with gross menace into the mic, he’s riveting. There’s an especially good moment when he mimics Mere Ubu and holds a conversation with himself that makes me wish he’d dispensed with the actor-musicians and done the whole thing alone on stage; sometimes we get a spell of wonderfully deep and blood-curdling instrumental drones (created in collaboration with electronic composer Gagarin); and the stop-motion screen animation by the Quay Brothers provides an interesting visual illustration to the sound and action, the graphic quality of Jarry’s Ubu drawings worked into a Swankmejer-esque landscape of dark caves populated by dancing cutlery and cockroaches.

Once again less would have been more – and the moral (as with the Tiger Lillies) is if you want to make theatre, get help from someone who can steer the ship, or at least provide a map.

Presenting Artists
Date Seen
  1. Apr 2008

This article in the magazine

Issue 20-2
p. 32