Theatre Review: Ubu Roi

Ubu Roi

By Synnøve Karlsen

As seen in Pegasus Pages, March 2013.

Play: Ubu Roi

Company: Cheek by Jowl

Rating: 4/5

A few weeks ago, I travelled to the Oxford Playhouse to see a modern interpretation of Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, directed by Declan Donnellan and performed in French with English surtitles. As a rather rude play full of boyish humour, it was originally aimed as an attack at Jarry’s old school teacher. It received so much criticism that it was only ever performed once in Jarry’s lifetime as it was condemned for its mockery of a bourgeois, hedonistic society. The play is about an old, fat, and crude man called Pa Ubu who aims to seize the throne of Poland and become incredibly rich through the use of his cardboard-cut-out horses and ‘the whole polish army’. The intentionally obscene and ridiculous plot mocks early 20th century Parisian society.

The modern interpretation was set in a present day French-speaking country. At first sight I was surprised at the very clinical, clean, and sterile white set and correctly anticipated the set being trashed somehow due to its naturalistic representation. The play begins with a teenage boy lounging on the sofa holding a video camera. The boy eventually gets up and videos his surroundings, looking closely at particular details of the room. He then exits and the video continues and it focuses in on areas of the whole house and household activities. We see the father squeeze the tomatoes that he chops, some vile stains on the toilet seat and on the toilet floor mat, the mother getting changed, and the bed linens and unmade bed of the boy’s parents where he finds some dirt and a hair. All of these rather normal yet uncomfortable images seen up close allow us to see behind the façade of this clinically clean, sterile home and we see the fallible and more animalistic side to human beings and their habitats.

The play was a very interesting, surreal experience, just as Jarry had intended it to be. It was an interesting mixture of being both very funny and uncomfortable, managing to provoke a sort of animalistic response from the audience in finding it so funny. It was incredibly successful in mocking the bourgeois, ulterior motives and the real hedonism of our money-crazed world, and it resonated with society today. I thought it was fascinating that the entire Ubu aspect was in the boy’s control and from his perspective, as it was Jarry’s view as a young school boy.

Ultimately, the play reminds us that although we are able to have this polite façade, a perfect example being at a dinner party, underneath all of it humans have this innate desire to be odd and animalistic. I found myself linking the play with ‘The Lord of the Flies’ and ‘Apocalypse Now.’ If you are up for wild, metatheatrical and non-naturalistic productions I would highly recommend Ubu Roi.

Photography: Cheek by Jowl: Ubu Roi. Photography by Johan Persson.

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