Culture Wars: Don't look BEHIND YOU...
Sandra Lawrence on the compelling horror of anti-panto
'I just try to do things that have not been done before', protests Martyn Jacques, at the suggestion that he only sets out to shock. Jacques is talking about the music he has written for the anti-panto Shockheaded Peter, based on terrifying nineteenth-century children's stories by the taciturn German horror-meister Heinrich Hoffmann. We could just as well be discussing any of eight albums with his eclectic trio, The Tiger Lillies, whose albums deal with subjects as taboo as bestiality, amputees, deranged pensioners and Slough.
Jacques began life as a painter, but changed to music 'because it doesn't smell'. He spent 10 years of serendipity spying on lowlife from his Soho bedroom window, then found the two Adrians, Huge and Stout. The trio have spent the past 10 years travelling Europe with their surreal blend of lieder, opera, gypsy, ktlezmer, Arabic, jazz and acid. From the start, Jacques' songs were uncompromisingly bitter in their subject matter. Pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts, perverts and losers are his chief sources, and the words do not leave much to the imagination. What increases their impact is his curious delivery - he has a very high, operatic voice which slices through the senses like a stiletto through sheet metal. One particularly memorable line from the album Farmyard Filth - 'I love a little hamster up my rectum' - increases its exquisite nausea when chirruped by an angel with an accordion. 'I am attracted by the alarming and the threatening', Jacques says simply.
Now, The Tiger Lillies have created a cult following that ranges from Talking Heads' David Byrne, who used them in his South Bank season, to film director Jake Scott, who used their music in his latest movie Plunkett and Maclean. When Michael Morris was looking to create a stage version of Struwwelpeter (Shockheaded Peter), he knew Martyn Jacques and his unmerry men were the only group to create the musical core.
Struwwelpeter is a collection of disturbing cautionary tales about small children with minor defects, like daydreaming or thumb-sucking. These children are punished in horrific ways, thereby teaching all good Victorian children that it is best to conform...or else. A friend of mine, on being given a copy of the book by an unwise - or sadistic - relative, refused to go to bed until she had witnessed the burning of the volume. Jacques, of course, has elevated these nightmares to the sinister humour of a combination of serial murder and grand guignol. In the original, the little mite who sucked his thumbs merely had them cut off with scissors by the man with the pointy hair. Jacques has him bleed to death. In fact, Jacques' version of the morality tales does not allow anybody to live, and the children's play that is not really for children ends with a sea of tiny headstones on the stage. His unnerving castrato wavers at the climax of each musical story, his accordion holding that dischord just that little bit too long to be entirely comfortable, while the audience waits in silent panic for the inevitable scream, 'He was deeee-aaaaaaad!!!!!!!!!!'.
Shockheaded Peter uses many art forms traditionally associated with children - song, puppetry, mime, circus - and turns them into the stuff of nightmares. The demented Victorian circus barker, who is in turns MC and personification of the devil, pops up through tiny flaps in the 'Cabinet of Dr Calligari' set like a crazed jack-in-the-box, before introducing us to yet another exhibit in his fairground freakshow. The band, central to the entire performance ('we wrote the songs first, then worked the play round them'), hangs eerily above the action. Or lurks in the shadows behind the protagonists. Or looms behind one of the many doors like a bad dream. Jacques, in full horror-clown make-up and trademark bowler hat, is dragged out of a trapdoor by the hair, shrouded in dry ice, to sing a mournful aria about the child who did not look where he was going and drowned. At the end of the number, the MC shoves him back though his trapdoor grave, rewarding him with a single boiled sweet, like a killer whale that has balanced a ball on his nose instead of eating his keeper. The audience laughs uneasily.
Despite our pretensions to broadmindedness, we in the cotton-wool-cushioned 1990s are more easily shocked now than people were in Victorian times. Maybe that is why Shockheaded Peter hits so hard. But even The Tiger Lillies drew the line at the 'Inky Boy' tale, where bullies who tease a black boy are dipped in ink by the god-figure who wreaks revenge on all bad little children. Jacques defends his decision to ditch this story. 'I don't think Shockheaded Peter sets out to say anything specifically. When people get specific, they lose their power.'
I think I understand what he means.
Shockheaded Peter is currently on Broadway, preceding a tour of Russia. It will return to Britain in the spring
Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999