FringeReview UK 2016
Shit! It was the night of Storm Angus, and the November rain was coming down in stair-rods as we ran from the car to the village hall in Hassocks. Our hair was still dripping wet as we slid damply into our seats to see Squall + Frenzy’s production of ‘Ubu Roi’. In fact, ‘squall and frenzy’ described the weather perfectly. Shit !
And then the rain was forgotten because there it was, shouted on the stage – ‘Shit!’ – the famous opening line of Alfred Jarry’s play. Infamous opening line, actually – it caused a riot at the play’s first performance in Paris in 1896. The audience was violently divided, as ‘Merde!’ was a scandalous expression in late nineteenth century theatre, and the play’s opponents chased Jarry down the street, intent on lynching him. (Though of course, Jarry was careful to misspell the words as ‘Pshit’ or ‘Merdre’ in the printed script). ‘Ubu Roi’ wasn’t performed in public again for another ten years.
But Jarry had the last laugh. ‘Ubu Roi’ – (Ubu the King) – has had a huge effect on theatre, and on twentieth century culture in general. The play is seen as the first break with bourgeois tradition, influencing the avant-garde movements of Dada, the Surrealists, Futurism, and playwrights of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ like Beckett and Ionesco. The poet Apollinaire, and the painters Braque and Picasso, were friends and admirers of Jarry’s work.
You could say that this play was the bridge into the art of the Twentieth Century.
The actor shouting ‘Shit!’ was fair-haired, with a enormous paunch – actually a strategically placed cushion half visible under a loose-fitting shirt – and vivid orange stage makeup coating his face. Père Ubu (for it was he) is a monster. He’s a cowardly, greedy, lazy, brutally violent monster. The prescient genius of Jarry was to predict the appalling demagogues of the twentieth century: Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao. With amazingly lucky timing (or more probably, foresight), Squall + Frenzy had chosen to give us Père Ubu as … Donald Trump.
The play is loosely based on MacBeth. Père Ubu is Captain of the Guard at the court of King Wenceslas of Poland, in Warsaw, and he’s persuaded by his wife, Mère Ubu, to kill the king and seize the throne. An outsider would gain power and control of the country’s wealth. So Owen Bleach played Ubu with an American accent, and his delivery gave us all of Trump’s hectoring voice and grandiose gesturing.
Like in Shakespeare’s play, it’s the wife who pushes her husband into regicide. Mère Ubu is as gross as Père Ubu; a slattern with a harsh, shrieking voice like a traditional fishwife. But she’s a sexual creature, too. Francesca Isherwood’s bosom was capped with a pair of red and white striped pointed cones, at least nine inches long. With red tights under a white top, a huge red heart on her behind, and a vivid gash of red lipstick, she made Madonna look like a shrinking violet by comparison.
You’ve probably guessed by now that this play isn’t a serious drama about politics and murder. This is life lived as a Punch and Judy show. The couple fight, have noisy sex (standing on stage in a bed created by other cast members holding up sheets covering the writhing pair) and Père Ubu gobbles up whatever food is available.
Ubu Roi’s plot involves Ubu recruiting Bordure, the head of the army, to help with the King’s assassination. Ubu becomes king, exploiting the people with punitive taxes, but then sidelines his co-conspirator. Bordure defects to Moscow to offer his services to the Tsar, and leads a Russian army back to attack Poland.
But like in Punch and Judy, none of that actually matters very much – the point of the play is to highlight the grossness and venality of people in power. Jarry wrote the piece to be played as knockabout slapstick, as in-your-face as street theatre, a Monty Python or Marx Brothers view of the world, and Squall + Frenzy have achieved that effect brilliantly.
Apart from Mère Ubu’s red tights, all the cast are dressed in white. Long sleeved white vests and long-johns. Figure-hugging, obviously – paired with the black boots that most of them wear, they look like Max Wall rendered in negative. Always funny to watch, occasionally the effect is hysterical. Chris Gates is tall, and as the Tsar he leaned forward slightly, speaking through a small black moustache he held in front of his mouth on a thin handle. With his slightly high pitched ‘Russian’ accent, it was an unforgettable moment.
Apart from Mère and Père Ubu, all the cast double up on roles. So Gates is also King Wenceslas. He and Tamsin Harding, who plays Queen Rosamund, have tall white headpieces to complement their white clothing. Hats topped with crosses – it took me a little while to realise that they were meant to be the king and queen pieces from the chessboard. But their stylised shuffling movements, always turning at right-angles, soon made it clear. In one perfect bit of staging, the royals converse, and each monarch’s speech is timed by a courtier operating a chess clock.
So there are nods to Lewis Carroll in this production, too. A topsy-turvey world. When there is battle (and there’s a lot of it) the combatants have sticks which they clash, then dance away from each other, spinning in a circle like Morris Dancers before clashing again. And all the soldiers have white helmets, folded like children’s paper boats and worn sideways. At one point they dragged an audience member onto the stage, to swell the army numbers, and when she was standing at attention with the others, with her paper hat and stick-weapon, it looked just like a pantomime scene – maybe the Lost Boys from Peter Pan.
This is a real ensemble production, with six actors working together seamlessly to create a host of characters. Alexi Parkin plays the treacherous Bordure, but he also plays a bear – don’t ask! The orphaned Prince Buggerlaus is Matt Swann, but both he and Tamsin Harding also jump roles into soldiers, peasants and condemned citizens, to flesh out the populace who are suffering Père Ubu’s exploitation. The pace is dizzying – and I haven’t even mentioned the mass executions, or the horses, or the enormous cannon ball …
Ubu Roi is a romp, so it needs to be played loud and fast and the entire company manage that unforgettably. There are occasional moments though, especially towards the end, when the speed of delivery made some of the lines difficult to hear clearly. A shame, as that’s really the only thing that stops this production being outstanding.
But Squall + Frenzy’s production is certainly highly, highly recommended.
I’m always worried when I hear the word ‘adaption’, but writer Isabel Sensier has wisely left Jarry’s text almost completely untouched – she’s simply changed the names of individuals cited, replacing them with contemporary personalities and politicians. So she’s kept the anarchic power of Jarry’s writing, and director Ada Dodds has created a minimalist set and staging that lets us experience that anarchy full in the face.
Just a white sheet hanging at the rear of the stage, and a single chair that doubles as a throne, rostrum or dining room seat. Nothing to distract from the costumes, or from Jarry’s words. We are given location by a series of text slides projected onto the sheet, like in silent films. At the opening, we saw the single word – POLAND. Then that was followed by the next slide – WARSAW, POLAND. Two succeeding slides gave us – THAT IS TO SAY – EVERYWHERE, followed seconds later by – THAT IS TO SAY – NOWHERE. These are Jarry’s original (rather flowery) stage directions, which Ada Dodds has turned into evocative visuals. I’m sure the ghost of Alfred Jarry would approve.