Director- Declan Donnellan
Cast- Xavier Boiffier, Camille Cayol, Vincent de Bouard, Christophe Grégoire, Cécile Leterme, Sylvian Levitte
Company- Cheek by Jowl
On the final leg of their European tour, Cheek by Jowl have exploded into the Barbican’s Dancing around Duchamp season with their French language production of Ubu Roi. A precursor to the Surrealist and Theatre of the Absurd movement, Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play explores wealth, greed and power struggles through the deplorable activities of an incompetent bumbling leader, Pere Ubu.
Opening with Nick Omerod’s crisp, cream set in a middle class French apartment, a solemn teenager armed with a video camera films his parents preparing for a dinner party. In the projections of this voyeuristic footage, the pristine façade quickly gives way to everyday realities. But the stray hair in bed, glistening meat course and unclean toilet are only the beginnings of this visceral production.
The boy’s imaginings, prompted by his parents casual fondling of each other, flicker in and out of the green-lit static alternate world of Pere Ubu. Casting his father as the grotesque protagonist, his mother follows as the seductive, foul-mouthed, Lady MacBeth type Mere Ubu.
As the guests arrive, metamorphosing from polite facades into twisted figures capable of treason, a plot is quickly cooked to dispatch of the Polish King Wenceslas. Firmly lodged in the domestic sphere, the lampshade crown becomes Pere Ubu’s after a quick lobotomy with a hand held blender.
It is these clever touches of domesticity interchanging into warfare that give Donnellan’s production the absurd air of children playing dangerous games. The cleaning spray gun, tin foil gold, and toilet brush sword are only a few examples that slowly destroy the apartment in melodramatic battle scenes.
This, combined with clever ad libbing from Pere Ubu asking the audience for a banker to torture, lodges this performance firmly in today’s world. Amongst laughter, he continues, ‘but this is London, no?’ revealing the transience of Jarry’s insights into humanity’s worst attributes lurking below surface, capable of emerging once a fragile veneer is shattered.
This energetic performance is aided by the role-swapping cast who play financiers, gentry, lawmakers, and the entire Russian and Polish army. In this subtitled performance, words come second to Jane Gibson’s movement direction, transforming the upright middle class dinner guests into jerky, exaggeratedly grotesque miscreants.
Cheek by Jowl succeed in making their adaptation of Ubu Roi the most desirable dinner party in town, just make sure to bring a rolling pin sword, if you choose to accept the invitation.
Showing at Silk Street Theatre, Barbican until April 20th.