Next week the Barbican unveils Ionesco’s Rhinocerus, staged in French by the ThÃ©Ã¢tre de la Ville, from Paris’s ChÃ¢telet. Things don’t get much more Absurdist than that. Except that Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, first staged in 1896 when the author was just 23 (he was dead by 34), and whose staging (also in French) will resurface this spring at the Barbican in April, preempted the entire Cocteau- Ionesco-Beckett generation.
Jarry’s licence, daring, remorseless, Surreal fun-poking were worshipped by the Dadaist poet Apollinaire, and an inspiration to Italian literary giants (such as Dino Buzzati) and East European comedians and satirists. In Ubu Roi the 23-year old Jarry created, like Charlie Chaplin after him, a scheming, murderous yet ridiculous potentate: risky to poke comedy at the Ceausescus, Saddam or the Emperor Bokassa; let alone to extract farce from a Hitler or Pol Pot.
Ubu – a corruption of Jarry’s old teacher’s name, dating back to a play he evolved and performed with his schoolfriends – is a monster on a par with these; a slaughterer of innocents on a sweeping scale, like Herod or the potentates of Assyria.
Ubu’s Shakespearian roots are patent: Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet‘s fratricidal Claudius. Seizing the throne (of Poland), Ubu indulges his grotesque pleasure in killing and garrotting upon the intelligentsia, political classes, judiciary, then the entire populace. Stalin writ large.
The brilliance and intelligence – but also the fun – of Declan Donnellan’s wise, ticklish staging for Cheek by Jowl, with restrained sets by Nick Ormerod, is that it out-does Jarry himself. By interleaving scenes of an unruffled dinner (6 characters) in a leafy middle class suburb with the maniacal explosion of some subterranean force – a real Jekyll and Hyde juxtaposition – Donnellan permits himself not only to match the grim Surrealism of Jarry’s original, but in some ways to better or advance it.
What is really going on is suggested both by the start, a rather drawn-out if conceivably apt sequence with a hand-held camera, featuring the 14 year old son (a great performance from young Sylvain Levitte); and at the very close, where –
having regained, Malcolm-like, his throne, as the dispossessed Prince Bougrelas (a kind of ‘buggar’ or ‘buggaroff’: the play’s very first word, thrustingly displayed, is a corruption of ‘merde’, even before the shit hits the fan) – the boy quite meekly sidles into his neglected seat at the dinner table. In other words, perhaps the whole ghastly sequence is a teenage take on, a myth-making around, the awfulness of the adults around him. But is he, or they, you or me?
There’s a stupendous, brilliantly directed and conceived, performance from Christophe Gregoire as ‘PÃ¨re Ubu’: frothing at the fanged mouth, lusting for blood and enacting his fantasies (abetted by Camille Cayol – ‘MÃ¨re Ubu’) with the ruthless, cynical fastidiousness of a Sweeney Todd, then returning calmly to carve the joint.
It’s a clever, Expressionistic way of bringing home the simple notion that there may be an Ubu, lusting after power or gold or just bodies, in all of us. Pascal NoÃ«l’s follow-spot picks out the audience at one all-too salient moment: ‘There you are,’ it indicates – or almost sneers.
Mental crucifixion, blood-drenched slaughter, Robespierrian terror are visited on all who visit: Sweeney Todd again. There are joyous, occasionally side-splitting touches from Vincent de Bouard as the bumped-off Duncan-figure, (and his fur-capped avenger), Xavier Boiffier as Ubu’s cast-off Buckingham, and CÃ©cile Leterme, all comically dispatched by Ubu, duly helmeted in a lampshade.
As surely as in Macbeth, the blood, the gore mount up. And as surely as in Macbeth, ‘PÃ¨re’ Ubu gets his comeuppance. Almost as if he was always striving after it. Wheels come full circle. Fathers die. Sons win – they usually do. And this one, ominously, gets to eat his dinner.
Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu Roi will be at the Oxford Playhouse and from 5th-9th February and at the Barbican from 10th – 20th April 2013.