Review: Ubu Roi, Barbican ✭✭✭✭✭

The 2013 Barbican season celebrates Marcel Duchamp’s explosive influence upon art – how he sprung his provocative work upon the resistant public of the early 1900’s. Cheek by Jowl’s own influence is powerfully felt here with this bulging production of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 classic, Ubu Roi (a precursor to Duchamp’s work,) demonstrating what theatre is truly capable of.

Ubu Roi reveals the wildly vivid imaginings of a teenage boy – rebellious imaginings yet to be beaten into submission by civilisation. His imagination morphs a simple dinner party into a barbaric tale of despotism. Tyrannical Père Ubu (under the seductive instruction of intoxicated Mère Ubu) plots the assassination of Le Roi Wenceslas, swearing “by the light of [his] green candle” to satisfy his insatiable greed and indefatigable desire. Clarifying the futility of power and the worthlessness of money (represented here by kitchen foil, wastefully torn and crumpled,) Père Ubu (played maniacally by Christophe Grégoire) soon resembles Lear on the heath – reduced, frantic, animalistic, his desserts ill-founded.

The chaotic episodes are juxtaposed with rapid shifts to the controlled world of the adults, who calmly share an evening around an increasingly messy table. However, brilliantly sharp parallels are drawn between the two worlds. The boy collects video-footage (then projected via a live feed) revealing, with no uncertainty, the grim realities that lie beneath the pleasant exterior – grim realities that exist in both worlds, consequently uniting them.

Nick Ormerod’s design, a cream living-room, leaves space for the imagination to conjure its own disconcertingly familiar domestic setting. White panels become walls to vandalise, soft carpet becomes a bed of snow and, with bold, projected backdrops, the simple room transforms into a bleak landscape for the unfolding events, a laboratory in which to dissect humanity. The emulsification of live film and theatre is powerful alone but this cunning design also enables formidable shadows to be cast upon the back wall of the theatre, contributing further to the bombardment of the audiences’ senses.

Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu Roi is not a cheap, gruesome horror-show; it is a trip to the human zoo

The classical actors, comical, vibrant and immersed, are sublime. They are continuously required to peek out from behind society’s mask, transforming in the space of time it takes to switch a lighting state, and they do so with seeming ease; it is a rare delight to behold acting of this calibre. In particular, Sylvian Levitte bounds from converse-clad, languid adolescent to enraged Prince Bougrelas and back again with such energy that there is no question as to who is really controlling the spiralling narrative.

Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu Roi is not a cheap, gruesome horror-show; it is a trip to the human zoo. The characters respond to primal instincts – to eat, to sleep, to shag and the audience, far from safe behind the fourth wall, are invaded upon, and reminded that we too form part of this common humanity. The play is challenging and prompts, even in 2013, the visceral reaction Jarry intended with his original: “The public should have been aghast at the sight of its ignoble other self.”

Jarry started a fire with his posthumous classic, and all who contributed to this production ensure that the embers continue to burn one day into the consciousness of all those brave enough to consume it.

***** (5 stars)
Runs until 20th April
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