Tag Archives: Absurdism

“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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“The Stranger”

adapted from L’Etranger by Albert Camus by Morten Kirkskov

at Summerhall, Saturday 18th August 2012

An almost ungodly amount of haze floats round the stage. Spotlights tear through the fog to pick out A lonely figure sits on a chair, first in darkness but bathed in light within ten minutes. This is Meursault, hero of Albert Camus’ The Stranger. He tells us his story. It’s as simple as that.

Except it isn’t. Camus’ masterpiece of existentialist fiction considers nihilism, atheism and absurdism among other ‘isms’. By doing little more than cutting the original and shaping it to fit into an hour, Morten Kirkskov maintains both the integrity and the meaning behind the piece, as we see everything from Meursault’s eyes.

For the first third of the production, it does feel somewhat that we could be listening to an audiobook of Kirkskov’s adaptation and would not lose anything. Until twenty minutes in, very little is done in terms of staging and Guilherme Leme’s voice remains fairly monotonous. Slowly, however, Leme begins to move around the small square in which he is contained, looking for an escape from this tiny island he has built for himself.

The yearning to connect with the outside becomes more and more urgent as it becomes more and more socially impossible. As he is condemned to have his head cut off, the walls close around him. Leme’s performance becomes desperate as the piece continues, at one point breaking free from the square to run around in a circle; a nice visual signifier which highlights the difficulties of being a ‘square’ in a ‘circular’ world (as it were).

Throughout the piece, Meursault slowly dons a suit having started in boxers and a vest. Just at the point when he becomes fully clothed, however, his fate is sealed and once again the ensemble is destroyed. It’s a testament to his performance and the text that, doing little more than telling a story and getting dressed, Leme draws us closer and closer as he further questions his own existence. As he disappears, we become more present.

Some impressive tech work also adds to this effect of disconnect. The central black square is sharply defined by powerful lights, maintaining the idea of Meursault as a man completely pushed away from society. Coupled with some guttural music, it becomes clear that Kirkskov’s intention is to show that, though Camus’ hero is ‘outside’ the rest of the world, he is ‘inside’ his own one. Constantly, he is viewed through the haze, like the rest of us on a daily basis; to all intents and purposes, we can be seen, but in fact we will always remain a stranger.

“What’s He Building In There?” by Dominic di Rollo

at Zoo, Sunday 12th August 2012

At first glance, STaG’s What’s He Building in There seems to be little more than a play about a man who is a little bit too much in love with a chair. After closer examination, however, Dominic Di Rollo’s text is an absurdist comedy detailing the precedence of commerce and industry over craft and privacy, detailing how this affects love and the home.

Di Rollo’s play follows the Carpenter’s struggle to maintain control of his life without succumbing to the whim of his wife, his friend and his new boss. His love for the chair he has made holds him back from this new life, showing the importance of stability in an instable world. The playwright directs his actors in a style reminiscent of Berkoff, complete with stylised movement and make-up. This complements the writing, which is clearly influenced by Pinter (especially in the interview scene), creating a tone which, though dark, feels both theatrical and human.

Though the cast could afford to push their performances even further to ensure no drop in momentum or characterisation, they manage to convey the tension which all these characters encounter. Jock Maitland the Carpenter’s Friend and Richard Cullen as his Manager both show disgustingly sycophantic and abrasive individuals and are the sole cause of the Carpenter’s break down. Harriet Bolwell is touching as the Wife, who has done nothing wrong except want the best for her husband and yet is the most hurt by the whole ordeal. Yet it is Sam Gregson as the Carpenter who is the most impressive, as his whole life falls apart. His performance is far less stylised than the rest of the group, for he has been able to fight against this strange world in order to maintain a modicum of humanity.

The joke about the chair being “someone else” feels a little laboured, and the scene leading up to it isn’t quite in keeping with the rest of the piece (though Daniel Mackay’s distorted guitar soundtrack really comes  into its own here). What’s He Building in There manages to be funny most when it’s not trying too hard, and Di Rollo’s direction supports his script in this respect, finding humour where perhaps it’s not evident textually. This is an intelligent, perhaps even satirical, piece of absurdist comedy which says more about us than we’d care to admit.

Preview: Fat Git Theatre’s “Uninvited”

at the Capital Studio, Saturday 9th June 2012

Fat Git Theatre’s last production, The Nose, was created in a short space of time, and its haphazard and pop-up feel reflected that. Their new show Uninvited, however, has been a year in the making and comes across as a far more accomplished piece of theatre, marrying the absurdity of the company’s style with a more complete narrative whilst taking some hilariously funny turns in the process.

In the piece, based on Peter Mortimer’s novella of the same name, a man comes home from work one day to find a stranger in his house. His daily routine is utterly shattered by the intruder, who initially simply sits silently in order to upset his host. Soon, however, a latent violence manifests itself into something far darker as the protagonist’s world is utterly shattered.

I worry somewhat about the nihilism of the story – there’s very little optimism in its conclusion – but thankfully Josh Roche has directed it in such a way that the overriding tone is one of comedy. In his portrayal of the central character (named ‘Me’), Josh Goulding is hilarious, showing a man so set in his ways that it makes sense that this break-in causes a break-down. This man is excruciatingly dull, and it initially seems like this event will pull him out of his reverie to engage better with the world around him.

In Roche’s production, the man’s only friends are the Bouffons (Edward Davis, Kate Pearse and Emma Jane Denly), who are part of his beige and nondescript furniture. His house is his castle, and these his guards at the gates. In a world where the private sphere is being constantly encroached upon and violated, it makes sense that the only comfort here is found behind closed doors and in the purity of one’s own thoughts. We hate this figure for his small-mindedness, but it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him.

As the stranger, Joe Boylan is quietly terrifying, saying very little until the climax of the play and stage managing the house to scare the man and play with his paranoia. Fittingly, he is the only normal person in this absurd world. It feels like a little more anticipation of his final horrid act could be useful in order to make us feel more guilty about laughing. These final few moments are a little like a Martin McDonagh play that Ionesco has structured; this isn’t as mad as it sounds, for both writers feed off and send up the absurdity of life, meaning they are happily married here.

Fat Git were a hot ticket at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and there’s no doubt they’re on a course for the same trajectory this year. In less than a year, the company’s style has matured in a way which has begun to best use the grotesque to inform a narrative. It’s also thrilling to find yourself thinking about the play for a long time afterwards, for though I found myself in a state of perpetual laughter, Uninvited also does an impressive job of challenging and redefining our expectations.