Friday, 12 April 2013

Theatre review: Ubu Roi

Alfred Jarry's 1896 play Ubu Roi is seen as the forerunner to absurdist theatre, a bloodthirsty and scatological satire on greed and tyranny, with a central character who's a cross between Macbeth and Mister Punch. Ubu originated in Jarry's schooldays as a caricature of his teachers, and this informs the way Declan Donnellan frames his production with Cheek By Jowl's French company: Nick Ormerod's set is a pristine, modern Paris apartment, where a dull dinner party is taking place. The story of Ubu becomes the fantasy of a 14-year-old boy who starts by seeking out his home's grubby underside with a video camera (projections on the back wall show us what he finds,) then proceeds to cast himself, his parents and their guests as malevolent puppets. Père Ubu (Christophe Grégoire) has squandered all his money, and his wife (Camille Cayol) convinces him to solve his financial woes by killing King Wenceslas (Vincent de Bouard) and taking the throne of Poland for himself.

But Ubu's crimes on the way to becoming king are nothing compared to those of his reign, as he massacres the nobility, judges and bankers who won't play by his rules, then imposes increasingly severe taxes on the people. Soon even Mère Ubu can't handle the horrors she's unleashed in him, while his former accomplice Bordure (Xavier Boiffier) raises a Russian army to dethrone Ubu and restore Wenceslas' rightful heir Bougrelas (Sylvain Levitte.)


I've never seen Ubu Roi before but I know a certain amount about it (largely through seeing Simon Stephens' The Trial of Ubu last year) and Ormerod's set certainly doesn't look like the setting I would have expected for a juvenile, messy play but Donnellan's conceit proves a good match for the black comedy that ensues. After the lengthy prologue sequence of the boy filming his house, the violent world he's concocted keeps breaking back into the middle-class domesticity of the framing device, suggesting the nastiness bubbling under the most polite of facades. And the domestic setting means everyday items can become part of Ubu's story, like a handheld food processor being used to drill Wenceslas' brains out, or a large laundry bag becoming the basement Père Ubu traps his enemies in.


A two-hour show in French seems like a big ask (especially as it was the first time Ben served as my theatre companion - fortunately he loved it, even if it does lack Cheek By Jowl's usual flashes of nudity) but as usual with this company there's a highly energetic, very individual aesthetic to the production that almost makes you forget you're reading the dialogue on surtitles. It's dark, twisted and funny.

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry is booking until the 20th of April at Silk Street Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes straight through.

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