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The carnivalesque and the grotesque: The Tiger Lillies and Lulu – a Murder Ballad

The latest stage work from cult band The Tiger Lillies is part of a centuries-long tradition of art that challenges social and cultural conventions.

By Alex Laffer (Former Editorial Assistant)

23 November 2015 at 11.44am | Comment on this article

The Tiger Lillies are always pushing boundaries. With their mix of influences, including gypsy music, pre-war Berlin cabaret, punk and opera, their music stretches conventional ideas of of genre, form, culture and taste. From early performances in London pubs to the stages of international opera houses, The Tiger Lillies have entertained and shocked in equal measure – often drawing on such literary masterpieces as Hamlet and Rime of the Ancient Mariner to present their anarchic and darkly skewed vision of the world.

Distinctive features of The Tiger Lillies’ style are a merging of ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and the use of brutal, black humour to depict the grotesque and the profane. This places The Tiger Lillies in a long history of the carnivalesque, in which audiences are engaged with subjects and forms that turn social and cultural hierarchies on their head.

The idea of the carnivalesque was developed by the Russian philosopher and literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin from his study of medieval carnivals. During these fleeting moments in the medieval calendar, religious figures could be lampooned and rituals burlesqued; social order was turned upside down and a multiplicity of voices could speak against a singular authority. Bakhtin saw these trends most strongly in the work of the French writer Rabelais, in his use of grotesque figures and his inversion of the spiritual to the corporeal and earthly.

Many of The Tiger Lillies’ influences are part of this carnivalesque tradition: Victorian burlesque, where opera and classical theatre are redrawn as comic plays; cabaret and its mingling of the bohemian and the bourgeoisie; punk, with its deliberate vulgarity and anti-establishment ethic. Through all these art forms, audiences are asked to question normalized values, through shock, humour and the levelling of social distinctions. Lulu – a Murder Ballad continues this tradition.

The subject of Lulu – a Murder Ballad emphasizes the carnivalesque. The story is based on Frank Wedekind’s ‘Lulu’ plays Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box and appropriates the Jack the Ripper myth. It focusses not on the Ripper himself but on one of his victims – exploited and abused, Lulu is still the centre of her own story. The characters she meets are a rolling cast of grotesques from all walks of life, varyingly portrayed through singer and writer Martyn Jacques’s trademark falsetto and low growl. Jacques’s text pays gleeful attention to the body and sex – shocking, confrontational and often uncomfortably humorous, it pokes fun at social niceties and gives a voice to alternative attitudes.

The Tiger Lillies are contemporary proponents of the carnivalesque, in their deliberately provocative selection of subject and merging of styles and genre. Their music reveals the inherent joy of art, where social structures and the differences between high brow and low no longer matter. As such, they are at home everywhere, from from Spiegel tents to rock festivals, in television adverts and opera houses.

So what can audiences expect? Lulu – a Murder Ballad provides an evening of blackly comic entertainment that ridicules the socially powerful and draws humour from the grotesque. The audience is implicated in a world that gives space for competing voices, opinions and attitudes – a world that questions our attitudes to art, culture and social rules.

The Tiger Lillies: Lulu – a Murder Ballad runs 23–28 November 2015. Limited tickets are available for some performances.

The production was commissioned by Opera North and is a co-production between Opera North, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Warwick Arts Centre. Opera North gratefully acknowledges financial support from PRS for Music Foundation.

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