Cheek by Jowl’s Take on Ubu Roi

Iante Gaia Roach  07.08.2013

Celebrated English theatre company Cheek by Jowl’s new production of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 seminal play Ubu Roi saw its Italian premiere as part of the International Theatre Festival of the Venice Biennale, at the splendid La Fenice Theatre. The show, in French, marked the second collaboration between Cheek by Jowl’s artistic directors and co-founders Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod and a group of five French actors, selected in 2007 for their production of Racine’s Andromaque following Peter Brook’s invitation. It was attended by a large audience, and received enthusiastically, with many bursting into laughter throughout the show, and a final standing ovation.

Ormerod’s neat set design recreated a white, rich, bourgeois living room, with two doors, which greatly enlarged the scope for action and coups de scène. An apparently alienated boy (Sylvain Levitte, who is actually 24 years old, but seems an adolescent throughout the play) was already on stage when audience members took their seats, filming his surroundings bemusedly. The lights faded to reveal the object of the boy’s filming, projected onto the living room’s wall: the grittier details of what appears at first sight a very chic apartment, including the toilet. Then entered the boy’s parents, marking the production’s greatest innovation: a frame story, where the parents of the boy invite another bourgeois couple for dinner. Throughout the frame story, actors do not project their voices, so their words are almost inaudible to the audience, creating a comic effect.

The saga of Ubu is told initially through intermittent, spectacular insertions, with sudden green lights, loud music, and the parents of the boy fitting spasmodically. The original text of Ubu Roi then takes over the plot, with the bourgeois narrative only appearing briefly from time to time, and eventually bringing the play to a close. Such switches set forth the idea that well-spoken, polite members of today’s upper middle class can transform from one second to the next into bloodthirsty despots, and regain their civilized appearance just as quickly. Moreover, the clever transformation of some of the living room’s objects into royal props in Ubu Roi creates a persistent visual link between the two narratives.

The four ‘adult’ actors are cross cast to impersonate the many characters of Ubu Roi, with only Levitte constantly playing Prince Bougrelas. Their extraordinary, over the top acting carries us through the tale of Ubu Roi. Père Ubu (Father Ubu) usurps the crown of Poland from its rightful owner, King Wenceslas, who had been generous to him, and thus becomes Ubu Roi (King Ubu). As such, he kills King Wenceslas and sets up a reign of terror, executing all the nobles and the state employees, whilst sidelining his ally Capitan Bordure. He is eventually overthrown by the joint forces of Prince Bougrelas, Capitan Bordure, and Czar Alexis, but manages to escape unharmed.

Cheek by Jowl are successful in making the text appear fresh and topical, with its satire on power, greed, and the abuse of authority. Though it was written over 100 years ago, it could apply to the present political conditions of many countries in the world. Moreover, Jarry’s invented words and expressions (most notable is perhaps the imprecation merdre) still sound like neologisms in the actors’ delivery, and their comic effect persists.

Cheek by Jowl will be touring Ubu Roi to France and Spain this coming autumn, whilst also touring their older productions Twelfth Night and The Tempest, both in Russian, further afield. We can only look forward to their next adaptations, which will undoubtedly display the same skill in linking famous plays from the past to the present day.

Ubu Roi’s Cheek by Jowl. Images courtesy of 42nd International Theatre Festival of the Venice Biennale and of Biennale College – Theatre.

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