If there was ever a piece of bona-fide shock art, then it’s ‘Ubu Roi’. Unleashed on the Parisian public in 1896, Alfred Jarry’s iconoclastic play about the rise and fall of a Polish king shocked audiences with its toilet humour, foul language and makeshift props. It also laid the groundwork for much of the modernist theatre of the following century, and by the 1930s, had come to the attention of Franciszka Themerson.
This show features a number of the drawings, designs, masks and props the Polish-born artist made for assorted productions in the postwar period. Themerson is always faithful to the spirit of Jarry (how can you subvert something like ‘Ubu Roi’, after all?). She uses the spiral motif that the French playwright put across the belly of Ubu in his own illustrations, and works the play’s DNA – that grotesque blend of childishness and violence – into her aesthetic. Her ink drawings of the pretender king, his consort and their yammering subjects have a frenzied naïf quality; the papier-mâché masks are crude, cartoonish and faintly terrifying. Archival footage of a production from Stockholm in 1964, featuring her stage design, helps put it all in context.
While there’s no faulting Themerson’s obsessive devotion to the play (we have her to thank for its original translation into English) it’s the subject matter, rather than the artist, that’s star of the show here. It seems important to sing the praises of this caustic 121-year-old masterpiece without resorting to glib phrases such as ‘contemporary parallels’ and ‘ripe for re-examination’. For the uninitiated: ‘Ubu Roi’ is about a vainglorious tyrant, drunk on his own ego, who seizes power off the back of a popular revolution before becoming undone by his own hubris. No contemporary parallels to be found here at all. None whatsoever.