Venue: The MAC, Belfast
12 – 23 February 2019
The King is dead. Long live the king. Through the ages – and as events in our own world repeatedly underline – the replacement of one corrupt despot with another represents the opposite of progress.
The situation is blown into grotesque proportions in Ubu Roi (Ubu the King). Alfred Jarry’s schoolboyish lampooning of a plump, incompetent physics teacher grew into a landmark play, which would push open the door into the modernist movement and come to be seen as the archetype of the Theatre of the Absurd. Designed to shock, repulse and stick the boot into the smug, incompetent bourgeoisie, the play’s 1896 Paris premiere must have been viewed by Jarry’s fans as a resounding success.
It opened and closed on the same night, with audiences going into paroxysms at its coarse, scatological humour and weird ideas of fun. In the stalls was none other than W.B. Yeats, who appeared to like it at the time but who later whistled a different tune when pontificating about it in his autobiography:
The audience shake their fists at one another … The players are supposed to be dolls, toys, marionettes, and now they are all hopping like wooden frogs, and I can see for myself that the chief personage, who is some kind of King, carries for a Sceptre a brush of the kind that we use to clean a closet (a toilet). I am very sad, for comedy, objectivity, has displayed its growing power once more. I say, “After Stephane Mallarmé, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.”
Patrick J O’Reilly’s anarchic, subversively mischievous, intensely physical production is set in a patisserie, where an overweight, sexually predatory pastry cook fixes his attention not only on his female companions’ rear ends but also on Tony Flynn’s camp, autocratic head chef, whose crown he covets.
Ciaran Bagnall pares the performance space back to bare essentials, lining it with plastic strips, which reflect and refract the neon lighting, and creating a clinical environment somewhere between an industrial kitchen and an abattoir. The echoing acoustics, however, render it difficult to catch all the salient moments in Jarry’s challenging narrative, which is replete with references to Shakespearean tragedy and ancient Greek drama.
Clad, for good reason, in protective white plastic ponchos and hair coverings, the audience assembles on a raised circular shelf and settles onto plastic food boxes overlooking the gleaming work stations. The cast emerges in all-white utilitarian scene-of-crime overalls, primed and ready for work and play and armed with an intriguing battery of cutlery and utensils.
Rhodri Lewis’s Ubu is a leery, dangerous man-child, magnificently employing the full welly of his native South Wales accent as his professional environment becomes his battleground and ultimately his kingdom. Around him his victims and co-conspirators stir bowls of crème pat, chocolate cake batter and raspberry jelly, licking, sucking, flicking and smearing their contents on themselves and one another, slowly turning them into weapons of war and tools of degradation.
As the machinations of Ubu’s maniacal political warfare reach a chaotic climax, the misguided shenanigans of the Brexit débacle are impossible to ignore in this theatrically risky assault course.
A shorter version of this review first appeared in The Stage on 16 February 2019.