Behind-the-scenes with gigantic puppet production King Ubu

See the article with photo gallery here

In true Mona Foma fashion, the festival is in the middle of pouring a staggering amount of talent, time and money into something deeply weird: an absurd slapstick farce starring giant puppets, called King Ubu. The play cost more than $125,000 to produce and has pulled the Tasmanian arts community together for its staging in Cataract Gorge next week. 

In the Launceston College drama room, a rehearsal is taking place, and it’s an eclectic mix in the room.

Comedy actress Kris McQuade, most well-known in Tasmania as Daniel’s prickly mother in Rosehaven, is standing behind a microphone in practical sandals and a sunhat, next to Tasmanian comedy theatre stalwart John X – who played Pumba in the stage show of the Lion King. Mona Foma festival director and Violent Femmes bassist Brian Ritchie is sitting next to a giant Taiko drum that is being occasionally thwacked by Yyan Ng, a well-known local musician that pops up wherever a Taiko drum player is required.

An enormous, gorgeous harp is blocking Launceston’s Emily Sanzaro from view, but a keyboardist, saxophone player and guitarist are fully visible. A flock of Launceston College students in jeans and T-shirts dart energetically around two inflatable swans wearing crinkly gold crowns, and director Sam Routledge is looking the very image of a theatre director: sucking on a pen, tapping it furiously against a notepad or running his hands dramatically through his thick waves.

But by far the most eye-catching element in the midst of the rehearsal bustle is the puppets. Pa and Ma Ubu are each over three metres tall. They are made of bamboo frames sourced from puppet-maker Bryony Anderson’s farm, around which hang recycled irrigation pipes, doonas, and mattress liner salvaged from an industrial offcuts warehouse. On the outside, a nauseating mix of bruise-purple, shocking pink and all shades of orange are painted in bold slashes to create cartoonishly expressive faces, saggy bodies, and a generally repellent impression of two outsized human beings.

“It’s about 80 per cent recycled materials,” Anderson said.

“I go as close as I can to 100 per cent, but things like paints and glue are hard to do as salvage.”

Ma Ubu can blink her eyes and raise her eyebrows and Pa Ubu can open and close his mouth, as well as moving their arms, pinching their fingers, and walking around the place. This at the direction of two performers who are wearing the internal frames like backpacks: pulling levers and balancing in giant, buckled shoes.

Anderson has been a professional puppet-maker for over 20 years: she is introduced as “the best at what she does nationally”. But even for her, Mona Foma has thrown a few knots to untangle in her lap.

“I’ve never made a giant puppet before that has been asked to do fight scenes or to lie down and roll around on its knees and things, so those things have been quite challenging,” she laughed. “That’s why it’s so important to be here for rehearsals, to make adjustments as we go.”

Routledge, who as well as being the director of this show is the artistic director of Terrapin Puppet Theatre, said she was an “extraordinary artist”: “We’ve been working with her over the past year as an associate artist, and she is right at the top of her field,” he said.

“With Bryony the incredible thing is the mix of skills – so, engineering skills, to be able to create something that works physically and mechanically, and then for it still to be light, and for it to have an incredible aesthetic. Often you have someone who has very good aesthetic and is not so good mechanically, but Bryony has the combination of both, and she works with recycled materials.”

When asked what it was like to be inside one, “hot and sweaty” was the first thing performer Shannon McGurgen, who is the human form inside Pa Ubu, said.

“Once we get out into the sun in the Gorge it’s going to be a bit of a mission with our endurance, but that’s alright – it’s just a matter of spending time in the puppet and getting used to it and being ready for it,” he said. “I like the challenge of it.”

“These are very fun characters to operate, so we get to have a lot of fun – being crass and there’s a lot of slapstick involved, and the playfulness of being those characters,” Felicity Horsley, who plays Ma Ubu, said.

“I get to be like Homer Simpson, but as a homicidal dictator – it’s fabulous,” McGurgan said.

The play Ubu Roi was written by a young Frenchman named Alfred Jarry as the 19th century was becoming the 20th. Frustratingly, from a social progress perspective, it has never ceased to be relevant.

The farce follows a king and queen on a rollicking journey of shameless power-grabbing. The pair trample any shoots of decency in their path as they fart and squelch and stumble their way onto the throne. The puppet king and queen, with their hideous public displays of affection, crude plotting, and shameless bodily noises, are slightly more adolescent than the average real-life seeker of power for power’s sake – but barely. In 2020, this satire is hardly a stretch.

Originally a riff on Macbeth, the play has been given a Tasmanian flavour by writer Willoh S Weiland.

In her version, Pa and Ma Ubu arrive on Tasmania’s shores with a brood of unkempt children in tow, after being ousted from their homeland. They worm their way into the confidences of the King and Queen of Tasmania – played by the pair of inflatable swans – by posing as property investors keen to invest in the North. Only the Tasmanian prince is able to see through their act and recognise them as the despicable dunces that they are.

There is plenty of exaggerated, slapstick violence of the type designed to get kids giggling maniacally: think full-body whacks across the face and bootings up the backside. It’s a puppet show in the Punch and Judy tradition: happily, idiotically grotesque and bubbling over with totally-untethered silliness. It employs the kind of humour that can be enjoyed by children and adults, Routledge said, “that operate on multiple levels, like The Simpsons or Futurama“.

“I think of it as being like Ninja Warrior crossed with the Muppet Show,” he said matter-of-factly. “There’s an outdoor spectacle with a pool with slapstick humour, and then it’s a return to the family entertainment that I grew up with – which is showing my age – but shows like the Muppet Show that cut across generations.”

The music is masterful, and a core character in building the boisterous, slightly unbalanced tone of the production. There are musical numbers – like Who’s the King of Tasmania and Baby Boomers Boo-Hoo – but just as important is the scoring: immediately communicating a feeling of sickly dread or rip-roaring abandon with the pluck of a harp string or a toot of the kazoo.

There are artists from the age of seven through to their sixties in the production, drawing from Launceston College, Encore Theatre Company, the City of Launceston RSL Band, Allstar Cheer and Dance Tasmania, and the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Youth, Routledge said.

“This, by and large, is a local production – the people that are involved in this are from Tasmania overwhelmingly,” he said.

“And that shows what the state’s artists can achieve when they are given the resources. We have the confidence to do it, and it’s through being given resources that we are able to achieve something like this – those resources are going into local artists and local artistic communities.”

When Ubu Roi debuted in Paris in 1896, the audience rioted. The production team are hoping the Cataract Gorge showing will be slightly more sedate – but only slightly.


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