Fantastically crass, incestuous and obscene, Ubu is a riotous, lurid, shrieking clownfare of violent stupidity. A flatulent farce of the doggedly lowest moral decency and the highest entertainment, this X-rated kid’s show has puppetry and poo, clashing Georgian-era costumes and cardboard crowns, nupty princelings and mad rebel kings, koala skins as torture bags and mass annihilation. It is against taste, against maturity and against the kind of earnest political theatre that tries to appeal to reason.
It is the spectacular triumph of the fool. And it satirises that tall order of our time that we literally cannot escape from – in our future, news, discourse, media, ethics and daily life – however much we try. That is, the nearing apocalypse of climate change.
Richard Hilliar’s perverted fairy tale is set in Pooland. Yes, Pooland. Where Poolish people live and poop. The tremendously moronic, shit-sniffing brute Pa Ubu – once the royal champion – has been manipulated by the allegorical figures of government (Fuller Bjullschitt), media (Ms Information) and science (Dr Murray Faseema) to overthrow the King, who has become a little concerned about the ‘Overheating’ that is seeing the land burn, flood and desecrate of life. The slovenly Ma Ubu is his Lady Macbeth, a cunning mind in a misogynist realm.
The coup is a success and, for a while, the greedy live large. But the riches for the few under the reign under King Ubu can’t last long. Meanwhile, the limp-wristed survivor of the royal massacre Prince Bitchard (or ‘Bitch’) is preparing for the fulfilment of his birthright and moral destiny in the mountains with the help of Wicker (Idam Sondhi) and Corduroy (Amy Victoria Brooks), representatives of a posturing Left.
Every goddamn performance is astonishingly good. You love these characters like you love the villains in Roald Dahl books: you thrill in their grotesque, are morbidly fascinated by their behavioural vulgarities, relish in their excess. Monstrously exaggerated in Tanya Woodland’s wildly imaginative costuming and makeup, which splashes colour across the Ubu’s faces and puts the royals in knickerbockers and pale white wigs, they form a dissolute coterie in the Ubu mythos, prancing about on Ash Bell’s checkerboard set.
Angus Evans is a terrifying and disgusting oaf King. Tristan Black is brilliant as Bjullschitt, an oleaginous, smooth-talking weasel who comes to a horrifying end. Rachael Colquhoun-Fairweather is a superb main mistress of spin and flattery to the powers that be, and Shea Russon is hilarious as the token scientist, whose studies show whatever best suits the corrupt. Emily Elise as Ma is a sharp-minded sloven: wretched, abusive and abused. Nicole Wineberg is Princess Munt, Ubu’s nubile prisoner, who appears for most of the play as a strategic mute, a beautiful doll with a sweet and wobbly smile.
There are plenty of scenes which will continue to do obscene jigs in my mind, but the quavering Gideon Payten-Griffiths as Bitch humping his dying mother in a blizzard is one I will never be rid of. The way that grown man moved those long, etiolated limbs, which poked out under an enormous wig and little monterey costume – waggling in the air, feebly skipping – make him unforgettably ridiculous in a piece of theatre that excels in physical comedy.
King Dumc’nt (operated magnificently by Sondhi) is our own life-size human puppet, but there are sock puppets too that sing us lewd ditties, a cardboard ghost, an all-powerful nuclear holocaust spirit, and a cameo by an enormous giraffe too. As someone whose favourite movie might (still?!) be Muppet Treasure Island, I love puppets in live performance – I immediately feel my five-year-old mind, the one that imagined for fun her toys could talk, spark into life. I don’t think my beanie babies were ever quite so foul-mouthed as puppet-maker Ebony Anne Zderic’s, though.
There is a dizzying sequence of dramatic set pieces – a horseback assination, violent squabbles, a grand debate – and Tegan Nicholls’ sound (which makes use of instantly recognisable symphonies) and Ryan McDonald’s lurid lighting add another dimension of sensory overload to the graphic mayhem.
Masterfully written and directed by Hellier, Ubu is sensationally silly mayhem. For all its farting, its core message – about the absolute idiocy of humanity doing f*ck all in the face of total planetary annihilation – is the more pungent and long-lasting.
‘Can great drama come from climate catastrophe? Or is it just too hard?’ asked the Sydney Morning Herald recently. With Ubu, Hilliar has more than proven that great comedy can. I cannot tell you what a joy it is knowing audacious and irreverent independent theatre like this is being made and performed in Australia. If you have the chance to see this Tooth & Sinew production during its all-too-brief Sydney run, you damn well must.