Ubu Roi

by Simon Collings

Cheek by Jowl’s production of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi is playing at Oxford Playhouse until Saturday 9 February. It’s well worth seeing. Jarry wrote the play when he was 23, basing it on an earlier dramatic work he created at the age of 15. Its grotesque parodying of Macbeth, and other works of Shakespeare, scandalised audiences when it was first performed in 1896.

The company presents the play as the angry imaginings of a bored adolescent forced to endure one of his parents’ dinner parties. The actors move seamlessly back and forth between scenes from Ubu and their role in a dull middle-class soiree. One minute they are behaving in grotesque fashion, farting at each other, murdering people and getting drunk, and the next moment they are gathered at the dinner table engaged in elegant murmurings.

This dual reality allows the director and cast to create an extra dimension of humour. There are some brilliant transitions. The son videos what is happening, including scenes off stage, and the images are projected onto a screen at the back of the set. At one point we see on film his father as Ubu scoop out the eye of another character. Seconds later the kitchen door opens and we are back in the dinner party, the host bringing in desserts which from a distance look like eye balls.

The dinner party scenes are played sotto voce so we never quite hear what is being said. We only hear Jarry’s text, performed in French, with surtitles. The use of French was a bold decision by co-directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, but it works brilliantly. Jarry’s absurd word plays are impossible to translate. The surtitles do an excellent job of conveying the gist of what is being said, without attempting distracting word for word translation which would be impossible to read.

You might think that portraying Jarry’s mockery of human pretentions as ‘adolescent’ would undermine the play. But it doesn’t. Ubu Roi does have an adolescent quality about it — the scatological humour, the sarcasm. But it also has an unmistakeable seriousness. Pere Ubu is an incarnation of the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and any number of ‘third world’ dictators. He is our dark side, which has its roots in infantile desire.

Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu Roi heads for France next week but will be in the UK at the Barbican, London from 10 to 20 April. See it if you can.  The all French cast are superb.