It can get a little tiring hearing about all the bands you should have heard of. Hardly a week goes by without more ‘hipster gods’ deigning to bless us with their presence. “If there’s one thing you need to do this weekend,” urges the preview. “It’s the laundry,” is your unspoken response.
The Tiger Lillies, though, who this weekend are performing the worldwide premiere of their version of Hamlet, are the exception to the rule. The Brechtian/neo-burlesque/gypsy cabaret outfit might be a cult band, but they have a worldwide following – which kind of means that people who see them like them, but not enough people see them.
So where should you know these gypsters from, you ask. Ah, there’s the rub – or at any rate, that was the question until about a month ago. It would have led to a very long sequence of ‘Have you heard of xxxs’ that finally ended with a “yes” for the film Plunkett & Macleane, but then they appeared on The Simpsons.
That’s right, on January 15, to perform their version of the theme tune at the bequest of the show’s creator, Matt Groening, who it turns out is a fan. Along with Mel Brooks, Barry Humphries, Terry Gilliam, Marc Almond (“Just brilliant and utterly fantastic! You’ll never hear more perverse and twisted as well as haunting and sorrowful songs”), Franz Ferdinand lead singer Alex Kapranos (“There is nothing else like them. Any description of them is an injustice – they are completely peerless”), and Marilyn Manson, who the band suspects based his Grotesk Burlesk Tour in 2003 on elements of their most enduring work, ‘Shockheaded Peter’. As frontman Martyn Jacques observed in a 2006 interview with the Independent: “While we’re not famous, we’re a famous people’s band.” It certainly beats a recommendation from Melody Maker.
Central to the appeal of The Tiger Lillies is the eerie castrato-pitch falsetto of accordion-player Jacques, who is ably supported by Adrian Huge on drums and Adrian Stout on double bass. Once heard, it’s never forgotten, and while it will light up your day, it might appear in your nightmares. An opera-trained counter-tenor, Jacques spent a good part of his 20s perfecting the unusual sound living above a brothel in London’s Soho, inspired by his idol, the Belgian singer-songwriter Jacques Brel.
Given the pedigree of this Grammy-nominated band, therefore – it’s frightening to think how many Simpsons fans googled their name last month – it’s something of a coup that they’re currently in Copenhagen awaiting their premiere on Saturday, and then later returning for a three-week run in April. The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet is a collaborative production (conceived by Jacques, Republique’s artistic director Martin Tulinius and Hans Christian Gimbel) for which they’ve penned 20 songs (titles include ‘Mad Hamlet’, ‘The king is dead’ and ‘To be or not to be’) to glue together Republique theatre’s loosely-scripted, surreal visual tableaus that tell the story of Shakespeare’s greatest work.
For this production, Hamlet has been stripped down to become a two-hour tale of “contempt, love and revenge”. It’s now just a two-family play: the king’s (Claudius, his wife Gertrude and step-son/nephew Hamlet) and the prime minister’s (Polonius, his daughter Ophelia and son Laertes).
Ahead of approaching the Tiger Lillies to get involved in the project, Tulinius was confident the subject matter would appeal. “We saw them perform in Prague last year and then pitched the idea of Hamlet in a restaurant,” he said. “I could see immediately how it made sense to Martyn to do it. If it had been anything else, they might have said no. But so much of the content of the play – the murder, the incest etc – relates to the Tiger Lillies.”
Speaking to the band last week, it’s clear they’re happy and impressed with the visual elements of the production, which as well as the actors will include a line dancer, puppets and video projections.
Happier, at least, than their work on Plunkett & Macleane, which might be one of the most noteworthy appearances of their career, but was a pretty horrible experience. “It’s like we’ve spent our whole career in bad films – like they know it’s going to be bad and they ask us to appear,” said Jacques. Well, their loss is the stage’s gain, and this new version of Hamlet is your chance to discover what all the fuss is about.
The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet
Republique, Store Scene, Østerfælled Torv 37, 2100 Cph Ø;
Starts Sat, ends March 2, performances Tue-Sat 20:00, returning April 21-May 12;