David Thomas and assembled company of talent performed Bring Me The Head of Ubu Roi at the South Bank last night (24th April 2008), the first of two such performances. It’s a multi-media experience, offering a semi-theatrical version of the famous Alfred Jarry play along with live music by Pere Ubu, and back-projected animations by The Brothers Quay. It’s about the worst thing I’ve seen on stage in my life, yet I still feel able to recoup some remnants of aesthetic value from the chaotic experience. There’s something perverse about art that is deliberately bad which can still offer some sort of appeal. Some art lovers have no time for most of René Magritte’s work, yet love his ‘vache’ period – a short spell in his career when he turned out crude daubs of the most deliberate vileness, perhaps simply to get up the noses of the power elite of the artworld.
If attempting to capture the true spirit of Jarry’s incendiary, bourgeois-hating absurdist tactics, Thomas may have had it in mind to create something that flew in the face of conventional “good taste”. He succeeded. Everything was bad; it was like watching a bad school play. A catalogue of disasters included missed cues, fluffed lines, missing props, missing scripts, bad lighting, inept positioning of the cast, inaudible lines spoken off-mic, and so forth. It became clear in about five minutes that all of this was, of course, totally deliberate. Thomas decided to present a version of a performance that was going wrong, with himself cast not only as the lead Ubu Roi but also as the irascible, bad-tempered, alcoholic director of the play, constantly breaking character to shout, swear and push around the cast who were getting it wrong. A Brechtian device. But also a very laboured one. And it didn’t exactly add any dramatic tension to what was already an incomprehensible reading of the play; most of the lines, despite amplification, were inaudible, with Thomas himself being the worst offender, electing to speak Ubu Roi’s lines in a strangely twisted accent, swallowing every other word.
Bring Me The Head of Ubu Roi was also incredibly boring to watch. The main visual relief came from The Brothers Quay, who seem to have forsaken their usual stop-frame animation of sculpted miniatures in favour of digitally-manipulated imagery. Key imagery from the play – knives and forks, Ubu on horseback, the mouth of a cave – was rendered into sumptuous and glorpy shapes which moved with the sinuous delight of the red blown-glass horse that Ubu was riding. If you wanted movement from the performers on stage, it was happening – but was mostly invisible, due to the appalling lighting. I have to hand it to the talented cast (including Sarah Jane Morris as Mere Ubu) who were trying their utmost with some imaginative stylised walks and body movements, but their work was all but wasted, due to the indifferent stagecraft and design. One potentially inspired moment of absurdity – a man leaves the stage with a cardboard box over his head, then returns with the head of a chicken – was simply thrown away. The majority of the text was done as a reading, Ma and Pa Ubu standing frozen behind upright mics at the front of the stage. All very anti-theatre and anti-good taste, I’m sure. Also stilted, dull, and lacking in tension.
As to the music, I’m not whether any of the five performers who strode on stage so purposefully posing like Egyptian hieroglyphs were anything to do with past or present incarnations of the band Pere Ubu. Some doubled as actors and extras. They were mostly there to provide musical backdrops, sound effects, and a few perfunctory songs which were intended to illustrate the original story.
After all this negativity, I should once again make the point that Thomas was clearly out to contrive a night of bad entertainment; every “mistake” we saw on stage was, to some extent, done on purpose. And by acting out a second fiction as the out-of-control director freely roaming the set and yelling at the audience to ‘go home’ at the end, Thomas added another layer to the package, even if it wasn’t quite as dangerous as intended. (For full success, the audience should have been incited to riot, but that’s less likely in 2008 than it was in 1896). And what made it all worthwhile for this viewer? For a few precious seconds, hearing Thomas in full baritone majesty belching out that one word he was born to deliver, admittedly with the help of some digital-delay and background sampler effects: “MERDRE!!!”