Ubu Roi at the Barbican
A plot divided between the ridiculously raucous legend of Pere Ubu and the archetypal dinner party in the beigest of beige backdrops, Declan Donnellan’s direction of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi is full of surprises. The transitions between the indecipherable flow of grown-up small talk and the wildly imagined fantasy of a young 14-year-old are tactfully placed and have hilarious consequences.
The set, designed by Nick Ormerod, begins as a pristine example of muted middle class taste with all the expected household gadgets, kitchen wear and an obligatory unspoiled cream carpet. As it becomes the playground for the epic telling of the battle between Pere Ubu and Bougrelas for power and Le Roi Wenceslas, it is surprisingly satisfying to witness the adults at dinner make use of the décor like a blackboard with ketchup for chalk.
Sheet and lampshade become royal cloak and crown and streams of silver foil for money, Ubu’s world takes place in a landscape of re-imagined kitchen paraphernalia. The improvised nature of the props keep the sinister elements of this childish melodrama reassuringly make believe and the laughter coming thick and heartfelt.
The movement and choreographic approach is endlessly playful and energetic, striking just the right balance between darkness and sophisticated slapstick. Upping the game in physical theatre the cast are athletic performers dipping in and out of a multitude of characters. Wholly comfortable to watch and absorbing from start to end the six-member cast demonstrates that Cheek by Jowl is a company of concrete quality.
The technical side of this production is nearly flawless, with clever use of a hand-held camera that projects in-depth probing of his parent’s house onto the back wall. The full image of the house is extended in the audiences’ mind and adds another dimension to the performers on stage not usually available in live theatre. The sound effects and lighting merged to be powerful scene setters and conjure images of cringeworthy gore.
Subtitled throughout, non French speakers should not be dissuaded from buying a ticket: the comedy and quality of this show surpass the confines of language. Suitable for anyone from the age of 16, Ubu Roi is a directional triumph from Donnellan and the Cheek by Jowl production team. Warning: you will come away fighting the urge to build a fort in your own living room.
Photos: Johan Persson
Ubu Roi is at the Barbican until 22nd June, for further information or to book visit here.