thu 18/07/2024

Ubu Roi, Cheek by Jowl, Barbican Silk Street Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Ubu Roi, Cheek by Jowl, Barbican Silk Street Theatre

Ubu Roi, Cheek by Jowl, Barbican Silk Street Theatre

Teenager wreaks fantasy havoc among the bourgeoisie in dazzling reinvention of a potty-mouthed classic

Ubu (Christophe Grégoire) faces revenge-bent Bougrelas (Sylvain Levitte)Johan Persson

Or, The Lord and Lady Macbeth of the Seizième, as imagined by a bourgeois teenager who fancies himself to be Bougrelas, heir to the Polish throne. That's one way of looking at the concept so dazzlingly carried through by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod with the French wing of their Cheek by Jowl Company.

It’s a chaotic tale told by a big kid, as the 23 year old Alfred Jarry still was when he part-engineered a scandal for the 1896 Paris premiere of Ubu Roi, a platform at last for the savage, potty-mouthed and pot-bellied anti-hero Jarry had dreamed up years earlier in revenge against a schoolmaster.

In a setting which knows exactly what to do with the no-longer shockable and its law of diminishing returns, Donnellan and Ormerod give another turn of the screw to the playful-deadly theatrical variations around the Barbican’s sensational, Duchamp-dominated Bride and the Bachelors exhibition. Jarry lived his self-appointed role as a "pataphysicist" studying "the science of imaginary solutions", channelling Ubu in the last years of his short life. Others would be more disciplined. While the original play dribbles on towards its dotage conclusion – with two more Ubu plays to come, for heaven’s sake – Ionesco’s Rhinocéros as seen earlier this Barbican season only got stronger towards its chilly end.

The new framework does what it can with a drama that Jarry didn’t expect to play itself out – the riot, he thought, would drown it - and wickedly postpones for 20 minutes the famous nonsense-obscenity opening exclamation "merdre!", translated in Harold Manning’s brilliant-from-the-off supertitles as "shitka!" (given a dearth of published Ubus, Manning’s work cries out for printed incarnation).

Sylvain Levitte as Bougrelas in Cheek by Jowl's Ubu Roi, photographed by Johan PerssonThe postponement works wonders. 14-year old Bougrelas/Boggelas – Sylvain Levitte (pictured right), endlessly resourceful in his physical and verbal agility – is at odds with the sterile order of the family home. He wanders round filming the piss stains on the bathroom mat, the viscera of kitchen preparation, the dead flies on the loo. Then he has to endure the cooing loveplay of the elders (Christophe Grégoire and Camille Cayol, pictured below, adept at switching from social role-players to usurpers of Jarry’s original audience-reflecting "ignoble other self"). Are they father and stepmother? Stepfather and mother? His two parents? The boy’s unhealthy attraction towards the woman keeps all three possibilities in play. But he certainly doesn’t care for the man he casts as "Father Ubu".

Cue guests arriving for a well-mannered dinner party, replete with the half-heard but still cringeworthy endearments of the French bourgeoisie. Bougrelas can manipulate them to join the Ubu drama. His playlist to a ramshackle drama is as diverse as you might expect from an imaginative adolescent; composer Davy Sladek and engineer Clémentine Bergel team up to provide the best soundtrack to absurdity since David Sawer’s work for the Richard Jones production of Government Inspector. Verdi’s dying Violetta sings her heart out as the prince’s mother Queen Rosamonde expires – a side comment, perhaps, on Jarry’s own untimely death from consumption? – and Ubu goes to war accompanied by the music of Wagner’s Valkyries. That’s two topical anniversaries covered; even more pertinently, French radio carries a report on Thatcher’s death at the start.

Christophe Gregoire and Camille Cayol in Cheek by Jowl's Ubu Roi, photo by Johan PerssonOrder breaks down with household items as the props, another clever riff on the original Ubu’s instruments of state. Tarantinoesque violence is strictly stylized, even funny as it can be in that director’s expressionist madness. Regicide by a blender through poor King Wenceslas’s lampshade crown ushers in more murder multiplied by nine as Ubu massacres three nobles, three judges and three financiers in the adjacent kitchen, later playing out a queasy-funny variation on the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear.

As the saga begins to buckle, Donnellan and Ormerod throw more inspired ideas at it and the energetic if sometimes rather shouty ensemble of six works overtime. For all their prophetic embodiment of tyranny knowing no bounds, the Ubus are cardboard monsters. We can’t care about their fate or their victims, but Donnellan has a trump card to play with his parallel universes. You’ll come out both exhausted and febrile, shaken with laughter but also a little disconcerted. See it while you can.  

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