A right royal send up, mes amis

Camille Cayol as Queen Ubu and Christophe Grégoire (in lampshade) as Ubu Roi

Pictures:Johan Persson

Ubu Roi

Cheek by Jowl

Warwick Arts Centre

(In French - with sub-titles)


ALFRED Jarry (1873-1907), author of the pioneering French play Ubu Roi, was just 34 when he died.

He was even younger - a mere 23 - when his most famous play, Ubu Roi, turned its guns on jumped-up despotism, years before Charlie Chaplin immortalised the art with The Great Dictator and Viktor Ullmann with his Theresienstadt opera The Kaiser of Atlantis, by presenting what looks mightily like a spoof version of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Richard III.

The megalomania, fantasy and apparitions (even a Banquo-type march past), the blood-dripping Lady Macbeth figure, the slaughter of innocent and guilty alike, are all there; and they figure large and surreal in Declan Donnellan's stupendous new staging - as bracing and rewarding as the best offerings of Simon McBurney's Theatre Complicité - for the border-crossing, Laurence Olivier Award-winning company Cheek by Jowl.

The company is now more than 30 years old and features a brilliant French team which will later be seen at several key venues in North France.

It's a novel, bright, original and – given Jarry's influence on early 20th century figures such as Apollinaire – Dadaist or Expressionistic staging, that not just evokes but redoubles the terror, by casting it in an outwardly placid ‘domestic' context. Brutality on one's doorstep, one might say.

Sylvain Levitte as the son, evicted heir to the Polish throne, ultimately victorious, patently imaginative and suspiciously manipulative Bougrelas

Hence the funniness and the ghastliness fuse. As the partner French theatres point out, Donnellan's unusual treatment by its sheer impudence underlines the universality of the dictatorial instinct. It is, or could be, in all of us. The salivating bloodlust of Ubu (the spectacularly good, lampshade hated, maniacal Christophe Grégoire) and his seducing-into-evil wife (the fractionally too comic/silly walks Camille Cayol, who appeared in Cheek by Jowl's Russian language Three Sisters, and whose Russian-speaking performances as a long-term member of Moscow's Tabakov theatre were something of a sensation), lusting for the power and riches the once-powerful Polish throne can offer, seems to well up from uncontrollable and almost instantaneous gut urges: witness the (were it not so ghastly) hilarious transformations of each character from the whispering midst of a civil and urbane dinner party (only one seat unoccupied), into ghoulish, Goyaesque grotesques.

The effect is almost Monty Python, or, say, Billy Liar, whose fantasies require the distorted personae of those around him to feed on. Right at the outset, after an unexplained 20 minute delay to the start, some ten minutes are devoted to following preparations around the household, via a (projected) hand-held camera trotted about by the son of the family, doubling as (or who is) Bougrelas, son of the deposed monarch Wenceslas. The first changes of Ubu's character – monsieur into monster – is initiated by the son (the almost as admirable Sylvain Levitte), slouching telly-bound on the sofa like the classic 13 to 15 year old, gesturing a change to a slimy green light. He seems to be in control. And indeed, by the end, as he pertly takes his place at the table, that sensation is confirmed.

Are all the antics the son's anti-adult fantasies? Is it he who has the ruthless controlling instinct, even though he visualises himself as the victorious Malcolm or Horatio, the ailing country's salvation? Is it he who, as Donnellan explained in a not very cleverly located pre-theatre talk in a resounding foyer, provides the ‘anti-action'?   

The king and queen Camille Cayol  and Christophe Grégoire (still in lampshade) thickening the plot . . .

Levitte's initial sequence with the camera is too long: an idea overegged, and easily trimmable. Yet it has the merit, perhaps deliberate, of establishing an adagio, rather than allegro tempo. With the sharp lighting tweaks, all the nauseous events that follow, even when hot on each others' heels, seem to acquire a slow motion, as in a strobed cinematic effect. A hint – not the only one - of French cinema, perhaps.

Once the initial swap – dinner party . . . apocalyptic nightmare – has been witnessed, you might have thought the idea would wear thin with repetition. Far from it. As the besuited Ubu, needing less the coaxings of his wife gaining his own head of steam (there are suggested comparisons with North African/Middle Eastern dictators and so on, but Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu suggest a yet better analogy from our own era, albeit her influence did not wane), piles up the bodies (bankers, politicians, judiciary): ‘For my kingdom's sake I've decided to liquidate the nobility' – now there maybe is a modern coincidence - his rationality, rocky from the start, loses all foundation. Murder thrives for its own sake. Like 12th century Scotland, the very country weeps.

This was a six-man cast, and all were very fine. Vincent de Bouard, almost as if he'd absorbed the very foundations of Tati era and later French comedy, played the doomed King Wenceslas as wittily as he did the zany, befurred Russian monarch who comes to Poland's, and the boy Bougrelas', aid – one might see him as a young Edward III reclaiming his stolen legacy – not without his own aggrandising intentions. Cécile Leterme enacts the other (not all) female characters with gusto. Just as successful, Xavier Boiffier, initially as the Buckingham to Grégoire's Crookback, later (like Leterme) in a plethora of parts: ambitious, cowed, then gutted in all senses.

Plays are team events anyway, but against the entertainingly laid-back dining table-cum-drawing room set by the phenomenally talented Nick Ormerod, Cheek by Jowl's co-founder and joint artistic director – he has designed almost every one of their productions over three decades - emphasised by appetising whites and lulling creams that just waited to be sullied (just possibily ‘the visual poetry of suggestion, of material minimalism' which he has been lauded for), this French équipe, strikingly well picked out (Pascal Noël did the lights) and quite brilliantly, briskly directed – no sign of a single slip in an impossibly fast-flowing dialogue – seemed like a pretty polished, pucker ensemble.

Little ironic bursts of music (Davy Sladek supplied the elsewhere eerie, modernistic, threatening and at times silently screaming background whinings) break into the action: Charles Trenet's ‘La Mer' is just one such amusing diversion; there are ample others.

Cécile Leterme, who brings a certain gusto to the other female roles

Ubu Roi is a spoof. Jarry set out to make himself, and others, laugh, and even more so at the age of 14-17 (was he the real Bougrelas?) when - as impossible as the young Debussy was untameable - he enacted with his friends a scripted pastiche of his teachers and institutions which yielded, substantially, the foundations for his later play.

It was staged in 1896; Frank Wedekind's Spring Awakening, reviewed last week, was penned in the early 1890s (if not at this point staged); Robert Musil was at school undergoing the experiences that would produce Young Törless.

The desire to battle authority at that time was all but as strong as it was in the late 1960s. Apollinaire, Mallarmé, Satie, later Auric and Milhaud: all battled against practices, cultural and artistic, they found laughable, unworkable and passé; nor were they averse to parodying, mercilessly, other ‘-isms' of that era. 

Jarry, of part-Breton descent, was more than a one-play playwright when the ubiquitous TB claimed him before the First World War. His sense of surreal parody can be felt in his three other plays, all relating to or advancing the Ubu theme. There were novels too – just as trenchant as the stage works. Like Apollinaire, he was one of the great teasers, and Declan Donnellan has echoed that in producing not just a most teasing, but a truly inspiring, and also quietly demanding production: one in which the merd(r)e (which didn't go down too well with the 1896 audience) really flies.

Even in French, with subtitles, is Ubu worth seeking out and paying to see? You bet.


Roderic Dunnett 

Tues 5 Sat 9 Feb Oxford Playhouse (www.oxfordplayhouse.com 01865 305305). 14 Feb - 6 Apr touring France. Wed 10-Sat 20 April at the Barbican Theatre,  www.barbican.org.uk (0207 638 8891). 


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