Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 13th January, 2013
Alfred Jarry’s notorious play of 1896, performed here by Cheek By Jowl in its original French has much in common with the “Scottish play” in that we have a man encouraged by his wife to murder the King and seize the throne. The usurper is then forced to fight to defend his crown, while the kingdom is plunged into decline, and he is defeated by the young son of his victim.
But there is also much that is reminiscent of Punch & Judy to this piece. Ubu’s summary despatch of authority figures: the judiciary, the bankers, and the nobility, all reminded me of Mister Punch’s dealings with the Police, the Law and the Devil. Ubu is an anti-hero in the same mould as our seaside puppet, and he speaks in scatological, puerile dialogue while carrying out his atrocities in a heightened, slapstick manner.
Declan Donnellan directs his French cast, having them use their voices and physicality to tear around like children at play, in a bang-bang you’re dead kind of game-playing. But he also introduces another layer to the drama that adds further meaning to Jarry’s original while allowing all the exuberance and excess of Jarry’s chaotic drama to have full rein and, quite amazingly, make sense!
The performance begins in the living/dining room of a couple and their teenage son. While they are off-stage preparing to hold a dinner party, the young lad walks around with a video camera. What he sees in his viewfinder is projected for our benefit on the back wall. He goes backstage: we see a tomato being chopped, we see make-up being applied, we see urine stains in the toilet mat, as the camera focuses in massive close-up on these aspects of domestic life. This helps to introduce the convention that we will view the action through the boy’s eyes.
Ma and Pa Ubu come out front. They chat to each other in French, barely audibly to the audience and there are no surtitles. We are excluded from the chitchat as they welcome their three guests. Suddenly, the lighting flips. A sickly green wash fills the stage. As the teenager stares at the adults, they become Jarry’s grotesque characters at last and the play proper begins with the word “Merdre!” here translated as “Shitka!”
The action unfolds but from time to time flips back to the civilised dinner party. The white carpet may be increasingly strewn with debris from the story but the grown-ups are oblivious. The teenager keeps his distance on the sofa. It’s an extremely effective device, reminding us of the veneer of civility and the rituals we use for socialising, contrasting with the savagery and cruelty and animalistic behaviour that Jarry depicts humans to be. And curiously, it is the most naturalistic sequences are the most alienating!
Instead of Punch’s club, Ubu uses household objects to assert his power. A lampshade is his crown, a lavatory brush his sceptre. He uses a hand blender to de-brain King Wenceslas and, in a scene that brings to mind the Grand Guignol, he scoops out an enemy’s eyeball with a spoon and this is projected large, courtesy of the boy’s video camera.
We see more and more of the household objects previewed earlier being brought into the action to take on an emblematic role. The piss-stained toilet mat becomes a ceremonial collar – a satirical swipe at authority if ever there was one.
At the end, with the carpet absolutely littered, the furniture overturned and the wall scrawled in red, the adults continue with their dinner party. The teenager joins them. He takes his place at the table and tucks a napkin into his collar. It seems to me that after the rage and alienation, he has come through a violent and anti-social phase and is ready to take part in the rituals of the adults. He has grown up. The play has been a rite of passage for him and, perhaps, by extension a growing-up for theatre itself.
The cast is an energetic ensemble. Christophe Gregoire as Pa Ubu declaims his lines with vigour. As his Lady Macbeth, Camille Cayol imbues Ma Ubu with a conniving air – her version of the sleepwalking scene is to be tormented by the ghosts of the kings whose graves she is looting. Sylvain Levitte brings intensity to the teenager, as well as sullenness and rage. Xavier Boiffier, Vincent de Bouard, and Cecile Leterme provide a host of supporting characters, all with energy and humour – This is a genuinely funny production; we are perhaps less shockable in this day and age but the lurid exuberance really comes across. The formidable Cheek By Jowl has brought another classic to startling and relevant life.