In the centenary year of Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’, London is witnessing revivals of several works that caused riots. Now, as part of its excellent Dancing around Duchamp season, the Barbican presents Cheek By Jowl’s French language version of ‘Ubu Roi’, the 1893 play by Alfred Jarry that caused a ruckus on its debut.
The scatological and the avant-garde have always had a close connection – two and a half decades later Duchamp would celebrate this with his infamous ‘Fountain’. But in ‘Ubu Roi’ it is marked simply by the opening word, ‘Merdre’.
At first there’s no suggestion of ‘shit’ in the obscenely tasteful symphony of beige that greets us in Nick Ormerod’s design of a simultaneously minimalist yet opulent petit bourgeois drawing room.
Christophe Grégoire’s Père Ubu is the sophisticated gent, awaiting the arrival of his guests for the dinner-party he is hosting with Camille Cayol’s flirtatiously elegant Mère Ubu. Yet hunched on the sofa, like some Oedipal parasite, is their teenage son. He has opened the action by taking us on a video tour of the home, entertaining us with close-ups of the household’s hidden dirty secrets (the stain on the bedsheet, the speck of shit on the loo seat).
With a shift of light, we see the household through his eyes: suddenly the sophisticated dinner party hosts metamorphose into the grotesque power-grabbing Père et Mère Ubu, nineteenth-century heirs to Shakespeare’s tyrants.
From Seneca’s ‘Thyestes’ to Luis Buñuel’s ‘The Exterminating Angel’, the dinner party has always been a rich context in which to examine civilisation’s underlying savagery. The brilliance of Declan Donnellan’s production is to use it to remind us of the bourgeois complacence against which Jarry (himself a teenager when he first developed the idea) was rebelling.
The ensuing use of kitchen and other household implements to act out the executions and massacres that Ubu instigates is nothing short of ingenious. And a warning – if you like ice-cream boules, after the eye-gouging scene, it might be a while till you can eat them again. Rachel Halliburton
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