“Ubu Roi” by Alfred Jarry

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 31st January 2013

I’ve seen more eyes gouged out with a tablespoon in the past two weeks than I think I have in the entirety of my life. First came the extraordinary torture scene in Dennis Kelly’s Utopia on Channel 4 (“Curry powder. Sand. Bleach. Spoon”), followed by a similar sight in Declan Donnellan’s masterful stage production of Ubu Roi (though this incident was also caught on camera). Images and moments like this are discovered frequently in this take on Alfred Jarry’s absurdist play, which takes the original and ramps up the grotesque humour to extreme levels.

Jarry’s play of the rise and fall of a tyrant is here embedded by Donnellan within a middle class setting, where all the characters are played by six members of a dinner party. The dinner scenes in the original take place in a completely different reality, though the anger and emotion of the wider plot-line is clearly felt below the surface nonetheless. What we are watching, it comes to pass, is the inner imaginative workings of the hosts’ son. Lampshades become crowns, whisks sceptres and brushes swords as the fourteen year-old boy pictures these gruesome and dark scenes.

So while this production gets across the usual points about tyranny and despotism, we are also spun a story about the effects of child neglect and the power of imagination. The son is barely even looked at by the five adults around him, forcing him into this violent, absurd world where dozens are murdered unblinkingly and eyes are ripped from skulls using spoons.

The way this shift in focus is achieved is twofold. Predictably enough, whenever we see the son’s thoughts a shift in lighting occurs (smoothly achieved by Pascal Noël), tearing us from the stifling neutrality of suburbia to his crazed imaginings. More interestingly, however, is the way in which we experience these scenes; a lot of the time, the son holds a video camera, illuminating his subjects eerily and projecting them onto a back screen for our entertainment. The set-up for this in the first 10 minutes (when barely anyone is on stage) sees what is ostensibly a live video link of him wandering around his house, chatting to his parents and scrutinising objects which will later become props. Though this opening initially feels a little drawn-out, its necessity becomes clear later in the evening, for this has primed us to experience the play through his eyes.

It’s difficult to say whether or not these violent imaginings are the cause of neglect, but there is a small problem here. This is clearly a wonderfully created and playful (though violent) world, but if he were to have been less neglected by his parents then that would probably no longer be the case. Are we to conclude then, that neglect actually leads to what is desirable – that is, play and imagination?

This is only something which has dawned on me in the time between seeing the show and now, however, for whilst watching the show it’s nigh-on impossible not to be seduced by the sheer joy and playfulness of the whole thing. We are treated to slapstick humour, Python-esque sketches and toilet humour all presented in a way which makes it clear a lot of fun is being had. By the end of the play, the set is left cluttered, messy and broken, a sterilised nightmare turned into an untidy idyll.

The switches between these two styles are embodied seamlessly by the performers, who hop back-and-forth between manic leaders and well-to-do socialites, allowing a lot of comedy to be found. In one wonderful moment, Camille Cayol’s Mère Ubu enters to ask if “anyone is allergic to pine nuts” slap bang in the middle of a mad torture scene, forcing the lights to come up and the civilised chat to return for a split second before the door slams shut again. Christophe Grégoire’s Père Ubu is like a wound-up coil, slowly building up tension before exploding at moments of extreme anger. Xavier Boiffier’s jolly Bordure is also impressive, managing to elicit laughter just by smiling goofily.

The danger with this take on the text could have been that the points being made about imagination and the parent-child relationship stifled the tyrannical musings of the original text. By focussing on notions of play, however, Donnellan and his team allow the two themes to inform one another, pushing and pulling to create a complex web of power and play.

Oh, and I don’t think there’s anything funnier than a man hitting his head on a door-frame.

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