Staging Alfred Jarry’s proto-absurdist play from 1896 must be like bottling a hurricane. This, a manic and chaotic comedy about a sociopath overthrowing his king to begin a ruthless regime, will insist on being both shocking and inconsequential – it veers close to the point of self-cannibalisation. The only hope is to find method to its madness.
The Ludens Ensemble’s lively adaptation, co-produced by Paphos European Capital of Culture and Adjust Productions, seeks out contemporary contexts for this twisted tale. Using candy-coloured lighting, a discreet DJ set and psychedelic visuals, directors Philippos Philippou and Vangelis Makriyannakis try to move the action closer to a rave. Older mechanisms – Jarry’s instructions that characters arrive and pivot like puppets – are kept in place.
Dylan Reed’s wildly zany Pa Ubu requests that the audience bears witness to his plan to assassinate the King. Here, we find it a bit difficult to do what’s asked of us. We watch as he plots with his wife, Ma Ubu (the deft Jenny Lynn), and his chomping servant, Dog Pile (a hard working Adam Tompa). But the staging is more unclear than it is impish, with blocking that pulls focus, and performances that can be difficult to hear. Anarchy, it turns out, needs some governance.
There is more satisfying clarity to be found in later scenes, when our newly crowned Ubu eliminates the society elites and ravages the peasants, all seen through crisp displays of shadow puppetry. The production romps towards a giddily good battle scene near its end, staged with goofy martial arts and toy soldiers. Even Jarry’s slangy script get an update, with Reed’s roguish Ubu quoting the Hulk (“UBU SMASH”) and rebranding gadgets to avoid copyright infringement (his “Ubu-Pad”). He’ll even drop in a contentious rumour doing the rounds on the Fringe: that the Summerhall is being sold off for private development.
But that’s as toothy as it gets. The production doesn’t find enough menace to make it stir. And in this time of Trumpism, it may very well be unavoidable for King Ubu to remind us of abuses of power that are a bit too close for comfort. All the more reason for Jarry’s play to acquire greater stings.
Ubu Roi is on until 27 August 2017 at Summerhall, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe 2017. Click here for more details.