Review by Joe Moss
Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s 19th-century harbinger of absurdist theatre, is THE scatological drama par excellence. Think of Falstaff taking over from Macbeth, keeping the latter’s ambition and murderous intent’ but remaining a cowardly buffoon and you have an approximation. On the surface it is an easy play to perform; totally divorced from realism it does not invite big-budget productions but encourages being brash and in-yer-faces.
With its use of music, mime and bawdy, it is not surprising that – after the initial (literally) riotous performance – much of its early life was lived in puppet theatres. This larger than life works appeals to young audiences and performers although its language and – to put it mildly – sexual innuendo led to cuts and censorship until recent times.
For this production in the atmospheric surroundings of Burdall’s Yard in Bath, director Mark Winstanley opted for a boisterous, hectic approach. Lots of fast entrances and exits, sound and fury, regurgitated food and fake faeces flying about. The pace was stonking, so much so that I felt there might have been a bit more variety and emphasis. Yes, this is a shouty type of play but you have to find a way to create contrast or else it is all pitched at the same level and becomes undramatic. In this vein I also felt the orgy scene overburdened by business and however tempting to pronounce the initial (redundant) “p” in some words, it is a clumsy conceit for actors trying to speak their lines. It was definitely a strongly conceived and consistent piece though.
Benedict Kershaw and Lauren Amy as Pa and Ma Ubu carry the play. They did well, there was a definite “pschemistry” between them as they wove their preposterous plots. Kershaw was an imposing physical presence but I would still have liked both of them to be fatter – there are constant references and examples in the play to their gluttony and obesity so I always want my Ubus to be Pantagruelian in scope. Doubling and trebling parts is obviously essential here and (Ubus aside) any production of Ubu stands or falls as ensemble work. The cast was enthusiastic, hard-working and very much in the mood. Great teamwork and discipline – it is much more difficult to organise chaos on stage, especially such a small stage than the punters might think.
Which is why I was particularly impressed with the way in which stage designer Emma de Cruce dealt with the problems of stage access on the small stage. Through imaginative use of space, she seemed to have incorporated within the set eight entrances/exits where there would normally only be one. Coupled with the attractive look, creating perspective and interesting visual textures, this was the highlight of a very characterful production.
Ubu the King was on at Burdall’s Yard, Bath from 14th-16th March.