IN the 40 years since it first came into existence in Cornwall, still its home base, Kneehigh Theatre has steadily raised the bar in its creation of distinctive anarchic theatrical presentations.
I doubt that they have ever found a space better suited to one of their productions that this stone-built former factory in one of Bristol’s old industrial heartlands. Since it closed as a commercial factory, the building has been put to several uses, as part of a skate park, a space for artistic exhibitions and most of all as a centre for modern music.
This fearless attack on the world’s political and religious establishments, which paints a very bleak picture of our world as it is and its prospects for its future unless we all mend our selfish ways, fits ideally into the barren area of this grey building, with a starkly scaffolded raised area at one end, and long bare acting area thrust down the middle, leaving the audience to surround it on three sides.
There were a few seats either side of the thrust, but encouraged by mine host Jeremy Wardle, played with great aplomb by Niall Ashdown, the bulk of the audience were encouraged to stand, changing positions when they chose, to use their mobile phones to call or take pictures, or to visit the bar at the opposite end to the elevated band. And what a band they were! When Nandi Bhebhe opened proceedings with River Deep Mountain High I would have settled for an evening of music and song. The audience was encouraged to join in every song, with lyrics exhibited on screens on all sides of the hall. There were moments when Nandi, guitarist Dom Coyote (who also did a fine job of playing the assassinated President Nick Dallas), or all five members of the band acting as a choir burst into song when even this rowdy audience was forced into silence.
While the show lived up to its sub-title of being a singalong satire, taking a biting and irreverent look at world affairs, there was a thread of wonderfully anarchic, inventive humour. Writer and co-director with Mike Shepherd Carl Grose used every inch of the area to keep the action flowing at speed, but never muddled. Even when Jeremy Wardle went among the audience and persuaded, with a skill that would stand any panto dame in good stead, several of the audience to play animals in the zoo, with appropriate sounds the pace and focus stayed clear.
More complicated than your average farce, the storyline is based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth as seen by Alfred Jarry in his 1896 play Ubu Roi, which caused a riot on its first presentation. When you think of this company’s background it is remarkable that it took them nearly 40 years to get round to performing a play by a man who was described as being wild and bizarre, a man who overturned cultural rules, norms and conventions.
Now Kneehigh is happy to push those bounds even further. Mr and Mrs Ubu, representing Macbeth and his lady, swop genders, with Katy Owen displaying all the weaknesses of Macbeth and Mike Shepherd the steely mind of the plotting Lady Macbeth. Fear not that all this is beginning to sound far too serious. Both Katy and Mike have an armoury of inventive comedy and readily use all the humour in the script to keep the laughs flowing. They were well supported by Robi Luckay’s Captain Shittabrique, who played the straight man with excellent skill. Dom Coyote as the deposed president and Kyla Goodey as his daughter have the nearest thing to a straight roles in a show that is forever holding people and events up to ridicule. They can belt out a song when required.
It is a rare occasion when you go to the theatre and see an audience so at one with the players as I saw at the Marble Factory – an audience that was enjoying every moment of their evening, joining in singing and responding with genuine enthusiasm.
You might not agree with every sentiment expressed by Kneehigh in this production, but you cannot fail to be become involved in the subjects or be entertained by the manner in which they are presented to you.
UBU! is at the Marble Factory, Bristol until 25th January.