Vive la Republique! Tiger Lillies show is an international coup

The British cult band are currently rehearsing for a show that could help them finally move on from their magnum opus, ‘Shockheaded Peter’

My first question to the British anarchic cult band isn’t a million miles away from the title of Woody Allen’s first film, ‘What’s up Tiger Lilly’. But then again, this isn’t the most conventional of settings to start an interview. We’re on the street, outside Republique in Østerbro where they’re currently rehearsing for the worldwide premiere of ‘The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet’ on Saturday February 25, and while I’ve seen the Tiger Lillies perform before, they were in costume then and I’m not 100 percent sure it’s them, so I check.

Well that’s a lie. First I consider eavesdropping. After all, it’s not every day you get the chance to have a little taster before the main. As far as I know I’m only interviewing the band’s frontman, Martyn Jacques, and if my instinct’s right, this is the rest of the band: drummer Adrian Huge (I remember reading that he looks like James Joyce) and double bassist Adrian Stout, who is stylishly dressed and looks every inch the musician.  

They’re discussing somebody’s antics from last night – it sounds racy. My journalistic instinct is urging me to listen, particularly as the subject of their ‘recollections’ might be my interviewee, but then I remind myself that the Copenhagen Post isn’t that kind of paper – it’s a resources issue more than anything else.

“Excuse me, are you members of the Tiger Lillies, because I’m here to interview … Mr Jacques,” I stutter as they type in a code to get into a building. Mister! I sound nervous, even star-struck maybe. Then again, it was nicely improvised given that I’d forgotten his name. It quickly transpires that their illustrious leader is getting coffee and that the two Adrians are here for the interview as well. Ouch, I hadn’t banked on this – it’s going to be tough-going railroading all three of them into the Danish-centric feature I’ve already figured out.

And things get worse when we sit down and my recording device doesn’t work. “You’ll have to do it the old-fashioned way,” says Jacques. “Don’t worry, we’ll be gentle on you,” adds Stout, before proceeding to talk at a million words per minute.

But despite the mishap, I’m really beginning to enjoy myself in the company of the band I first saw ten years ago during the London West End run of their most enduring work, ‘Shockheaded Peter’.  

While I can sense they’re extremely patient as I fumble with my notes, I’m a little wary of how interview-weary they might be, and want to avoid asking them hackneyed questions they’ve heard a thousand times before. But I can’t help myself and quickly ask them what they think about Denmark.

The conversation doesn’t really lead anyway – probably because they’re very well travelled. ‘Shockheaded Peter’ was so successful they ended up touring all over the world with it until 2005, including a run in Denmark, which they later returned to with other productions. However, they have no great affinity for the place – well, not more than any other European country of similar ilk.

They can’t say it’s really changed much over the last decade. “Oh hang on,” says Jacques, my pen hovering in anticipation. “Last time we were here, we had to get a ferry into Malmø,” he offers somewhat sardonically. “Now they’ve got a bridge!”

The Tiger Lillies have a reputation for being shocking and “pushing people’s buttons”, but you can’t help thinking that if anyone leaves one of their shows in Denmark, it will be because they think it’s rubbish.

“We only really have a problem in countries where English is the mother tongue,” muses Jacques. “I don’t know why people are offended, but there’s a group of people in society who are offended by anything. We’re not sure why they come in the first place.” Stout thinks it might have something to do with the description of the band’s music as Brechtian and gypsy cabaret. “They get confused by the word cabaret,” he says.

One word often used in criticism of the band is ‘infanticide’, a subject that was central to ‘Shockheaded Peter’. “I’m a little bit sceptical about people who saw ‘Shockheaded Peter’,” Jacques tells me following my admission that I saw it. “I’m not sure that today it’s really as good as everyone said it was. It’s become something sacred, something holy. Just like Orson Welles started at the top with Citizen Kane and worked his way down, so did we.” Stout agrees: “Even the press tend to see it through misty eyes – it’s become a nostalgic piece.”

However, it’s clear the band still love it as much as the fans, media and London’s theatre scene – it won two prestigious Olivier awards and full marks from nearly every critic who saw it – and they are delighted when I show them the Danish version of the source material, Heinrich Hoffman’s 1845 children’s book Struwwelpeter – so much so that Huge takes a photo of it, and the Tiger Lillies start interviewing me about it. So this is Gonzo journalism …  

The German book was a huge hit and rapidly translated into many languages, including Danish in 1847, as ‘Den Store Bastian’. But they didn’t stop with the name. It was reillustrated, and three of the original ten stories were cut to make way for more Danish-friendly ones. “They’re replaced Johnny Head-in-Air,” complains Jacques about the story of the boy who ends up falling into the river and nearly drowning. “People not looking where they’re going – that would never happen in Denmark,” observes Stout.

The same could be said about Danes producing English-language theatre not so long ago. While immigrants to this country have been performing in their native tongue going back to the 1960s, it is a relatively recent development to see Danish theatre companies doing the same. After all, while a successful Danish-language play can only tour parts of Scandinavia, a home-grown English-language production can tour the world.  

Spearheading Republique’s foray into English is its three-time Reumert Award-winning artistic director Martin Tulinius, who last autumn oversaw the production of the English/Danish performance ‘The Bollywood Story’, the first of three international co-productions with London’s Southbank Centre, of which ‘The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet’ is the second.

If you haven’t heard about this, it’s because the media weren’t very interested, a proud Tulinius told me in between rehearsals on Monday. “It might be a unique partnership with a prestigious company,” he said. “But it was hard getting it noticed. They’re just not interested in a success story. Theatre world stories have to be about scandals and low ticket sales – it’s really quite amazing.”

While ‘The Bollywood Story’ only used home-grown talent, Tulinius’s recruitment of the Tiger Lillies – independent of the Southbank Centre, he approached them in Prague early last year – gives the production true international clout.

Factoring in the worldwide universal appeal of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Republique could have a monster hit on its hands. At any rate, it might be big enough to help the Tiger Lillies move on from that other monster, ‘Shockheaded Peter’.

This interview is a companion piece to a preview of ‘The Tiger Lillies perform Hamlet’ in InOut.

  • How internationals can benefit from joining trade unions

    How internationals can benefit from joining trade unions

    Being part of a trade union is a long-established norm for Danes. But many internationals do not join unions – instead enduring workers’ rights violations. Find out how joining a union could benefit you, and how to go about it.

  • Internationals in Denmark rarely join a trade union

    Internationals in Denmark rarely join a trade union

    Internationals are overrepresented in the lowest-paid fields of agriculture, transport, cleaning, hotels and restaurants, and construction – industries that classically lack collective agreements. A new analysis from the Workers’ Union’s Business Council suggests that internationals rarely join trade unions – but if they did, it would generate better industry standards.

  • Novo Nordisk overtakes LEGO as the most desirable future workplace amongst university students

    Novo Nordisk overtakes LEGO as the most desirable future workplace amongst university students

    The numbers are especially striking amongst the 3,477 business and economics students polled, of whom 31 percent elected Novo Nordisk as their favorite, compared with 20 percent last year.