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Edinburgh Fringe 2009

King Ubu


Venue: The Zoo


Low Down

Jarry’s original masterpiece, King Ubu is famously controversial, having been booed off-stage more than once during its original run two centuries ago. Nowadays, with offensive and disturbing material being much more acceptable, the rolicking madness of this Absurdist classic seems tame in comparison, and the decision to aim for surrealism over offensiveness was the correct one. Runaground’s production is madness itself, silly and crazy in equal measure, and dodges King Ubu’s controversial side for a much more pleasant and silly experience. A rolicking good ride, and great performance from this young and exciting company.


King Ubu is a strange tale, a semi-mythological farce about a man becoming King, starting a war for no adequately explored reason, and being ousted due to political intrigue and his own madness. Themes from Shakespeare are shamelessly nicked left, right and centre, and the feeling of a surreal, anti-Shakespearean, anti-traditonal theatre is upheld by strangely heightened language. This classic Absurdist piece was one of the first of its kind, a surreal and madcap stepping stone on to the likes of Monty Python and the League of Gentlemen.

This production grasped the basis of King Ubu by the horns, but also subverted it to modern standards succesfully and succintly. As well as being a tract on absurdism, King Ubu was known for its base humour, often sexual or scatological, and was the height of all offensiveness at its time. Nowadays, this ‘offensive’ material is tame compared to what the Fringe, or even our TV sets have to offer, and the wise decision was made to focus more on the absurdist nature of the piece, and only reference the ‘offensive’ material tangentially or symbolically. Ubu’s famous penis-hat, for example, was only a gentle hint at a penis, not a ridiculous phallic device, which meant that far more time could be spent enjoying the bizarre Kenneth Williams/Kurt Weill interludes or the dancing nobles. All of these abstruse events were excellently staged and performed, with nary a dry eye in the house from the laughter at some of the simple, ludicrous effects. These were all well directed and well adapted from the original, and Luke Davies, the director and adaptor, deserves a lot of credit.

The acting, was, by and large, simple and effective. Most characters were only created with the broadest of brush strokes, although the whole ensemble deserves credit for their commitment to the piece’s incongruities. The two leads, Evan Milton and Hannah Berry, deserve great accolades for their effective performances as Ubu and his wife, respectively. Milton’s transformation, in particular, from the Kenneth Williams-esque compere to the hideous Ubu, was an incredible transformation. He is most certainly one to watch.

In total, the whole piece is a great adaptation, and worthy of much credit for such a young company. Unfortunately, it suffers from the same problems as the original: there is not much of a (coherent) plot line, and it seems to seek to shock over entertain. Also, while removing the offensiveness made the production all the more delightfully absurd, it also removed the strangely erotic and disgusting elements of the plot, leaving the production feeling a little dry. That being said, the company, cast and show are all worthy of attention; this is very watchable and fun theatre!