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Pere Ubu, Bring me the head of Ubu Roi :  Music Theatre based on a play by Alfred Jarry, David Thomas : narrator, singer, director, librettist, composer, Pere Ubu - the Band, Sarah-Jane Morris : Mère Ubu, Brothers Quay : stage design,  Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London 25. 4.2008 (AO)

Alfred Jarry’s whole life was a surreal work of art. In “real” life he was a midget like figure, drowning in by absinthe, but he created an elaborate alternative universe based on ‘pataphysics. Note, apostrophe before the first “p” to differentiate it from an altogether different science called pataphysics.  ‘Pataphysics was, as Jarry solemnly declared “the science of imaginary solutions…….extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics”. No wonder Jarry is the Icon of the Surreal, of Dada, the Theatre of the Absurd, of much of what becomes modern art and philosophy, which becomes part of modern art. No Jarry, no Salvador Dali, no Antonin Artaud, no Eugène Ionescu, no Umberto Eco, no Expressionism, no Existentialism, no Maeterlinck, no Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy…… or maybe not:  - because the logic of this anarchy is that there’s no logic. Once again, heed the sage David Byrne “Stop making sense !”.

Jarry’s original play was produced 112 years ago. In the audience was no less than W B Yeats….It must have been shocking for much use was made of the word “Merdre” -   but note, it’s coyly spelled with an extra “r”. Nowadays toilet humour alone won’t wash, so David Thomas in this complete adaptation plays on the way the word puns with “murderer”.  Père and Mère Ubu kill the King of Poland at a dinner party, as one does, to the Sound of Music based on digestive noises. It sounds worse than it actually is because it’s done with savage wit. Then they introduce a rapacious, totalitarian regime that rips everyone off “for the sake of the children”.  Manic as this may be, but it’s sharply pointed satire. Thomas is politically no fool. Anything is permissible if it’s for “charidee” and sweet little faces.  Eventually the Tsar attacks and Ubu is defeated. 

For Jarry, Père Ubu was something more than a fictional character : Jarry walked, talked and acted as Ubu ,  their personas merged. David Thomas  too, has been associatedwith Jarry and Ubu since his teens. The members of his group Père Ubu have changed over the last thirty years but Thomas remains synonymous with Père Ubu  the character,  as well as the group. Thomas of course has been a leading figure in the alternative scene for decades, extremely inventive and creative. I first encountered him when someone gave me an LP called The Modern Dance. Note, “the” modern dance, not “modern dance”.  It’s a manifestation of ‘pataphysics even though Ubu wasn’t present.  It’s a frame of mind, a deliberately distorted way of thinking, but with elaborate genealogies and geography.

Thomas is a revered cult figure because most of what he’s done is too original to classify. Pere Ubu is a rock band in the sense that its members play electric guitars and synthesisers. No doubt you could put this music on as background in a club but there’s always been a darker, maniacal purpose behind it, even if, paradoxically it works best because it doesn’t take itself seriously.  You can’t be pretentious when there’s mayhem loose. Thomas’s work is a kind of bizarre poetry. Bob Dylan fans make a big deal about the hidden meanings in Dylan but trying to analyse Thomas would be mind bending indeed. Yet his is a  loopiness that makes you think.  “Woe to the weeds when they meet me says the Hoe, ho ho, oh oh” goes one of Thomas’s early songs. Maybe it’s just a state of mind, but it counts for so much for those who get into the spirit.  In this piece. Thomas sings relatively little, which is a pity as his strange, wavering falsetto is a thing of wonder.  Now he seems content with wild bursts of rhythmic declamation scrambling up and down the scale.  It’s still singing, of a sort, quite eclipsing the much more conventional songs of Sarah-Jane Morris, Mère Ubu, who‘s appeared in many well known rock bands like ‘The Communards.’ Thomas is just in a different league.

Bring me the head of Ubu Roi is, I think, an oblique reference to a violent film Bring me the head of Garcia Lorca by Sam Peckinpah in the 70’s.  There are lots of movie references here. Large screens project descriptions of scenes, just like in silent movies, and buffs will probably pick up allusions to Russian epic films or horror movies. Throughout the piece, there are backgrounds made, I think, by drawing ink onto plastic, like abstract cine footage.  But the violence isn’t accidental.  Père Ubu, nonentity that he is, is a vicious tyrant, even if the play is gussied up as a silly story.  This week, Birtwistle’s Punch & Judy is running at the ENO. It’s interesting to ponder the parallels. Punch and Judy shows are or were popular seaside entertainment. The puppets were supposed to be garish, their gaudy colours there to disguise the fact that the shows were gruesomely violent. Punch is a psycho every bit as much as Ubu Roi.  Père Ubu may be “popular” music because a rock band is involved, but the violence in the plot is neither disguised nor glorified.  See also the review of the ROH Punch & Judy for a different take on the opera.

So involving was this piece of music theatre that when someone in the audience was taken ill during the performance, everyone thought it was part of the act, “planted” in the stalls to extend the show, even when the alert South Bank staff rushed in to help. They were extremely efficient, and a paramedic arrived within minutes.  The South Bank ground staff may be “invisible” but don’t take them for granted. They do a great and important job !

Anne Ozorio

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