Ubu Roi is an exploration of the seduction of wealth and power, and the corruption that can come with both. After viewing the first performance of Ubu Roi at the Theatre de l’Oeuvre in 1896, W.B Yeats is reported to have said, “After us the Savage God”. Sadly, I don’t have such profound words to offer having seen Cheek by Jowl’s performance at the Oxford Playhouse – though, that is not to say that it was not startlingly dynamic. With the most colourful lights I’ve seen on stage, some amazingly physical performances and a curious use of a video projector, Cheek by Jowl undoubtedly captured the chaos that infamously characterizes this play.
The performance starts with a young man filming the inside of his house, and the film is projected onto a screen at the back of the stage. It starts as you might expect; the hallway, the kitchen, someone cooking. Then he begins to zoom uncomfortably close – inside the slab of meat being cooked; up the cook’s nose; right inside the fur of a coat – until the camera dips into a loo basin, where it steadily examines an ugly brown mark. This is the first of several very absurdist and conspicuously unexplained theatrical devices, including the use of cleaning products as weapons. If you are keen to test your ability for imaginative interpretation, this is definitely a play for you.
One performance stood out in particular, and that was Camille Cayol as Mere Ubu. Her quick change from composed noble woman to savage brute was arresting; as her whole body writhed, screaming “MERDRE” (translated as ‘shitka’ by the subtitles), she became a sort of primal Lady Macbeth, wildly egging on her husband to kill the King. The intensity of these moments is offset by the comedy that the switch back to ‘normality’ brings; the lights go green and Mere and Pere Ubu turn into frothing savages shrieking about murder, only to return to daylight and back to their dinner party. Not all the comedic moments are so convincing however; the play relies heavily on farce, which gets tedious after the first hour.
Ubu Roi has such a place in the French psyche that the word ‘ubuesque’ has been coined, often used to describe hectic political affairs. This adjective certainly applies to this performance, which was frenzied – exhaustingly so, at 100 minutes long – but was held up by excellent performances and clever theatrical devices.
*** (3 Stars)