Brighton Fringe 2018
A surreal and absurd engagement with politics and greed and an ample smattering of sexual deviation to boot.
Paris in 1896 was not ready for playwright Alfred Jarry. In fact when Ubu The King was first performed at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre it caused riots and protests which caused the show to close the same day that it opened. French society could not accept the bizarre comedy and wild plot lines which set aside accepted societal and cultural norms and acted as somewhat of a precursor to the Theatre of the Absurd, Dadaism, and Surrealism movements. Indeed opinions of the performance were split with many, including Irish poet W.B.Yeats who was in the opening (and closing) night audience, hailing the play as revolutionary. The first of three burlesques, King Ubu paints a grotesque picture of society and satirises the power, opulence, and greed of the lazy and unambitious bourgeoisie.
Jarry actually had a number of suggestions as to how his symbolist play should be performed including costuming ideas, prop suggestions, and of course directorial choices. Ubu, in his estimation, is a guignol – an often witty French puppet show named after the main character – popular with children as well as adults. Whether Squall + Frenzy are aware of the heritage of their ‘daring post-pantomime punk’ production is unclear, and no puppets were used in the creation of their show, but the company certainly put a lot of energy into the absurd aspects of their performance and the performance is entertaining to most. Many of the costumes stand out, quite literally, although one feels that they are somewhat off the mark as far as the punk aspect is concerned.
Just as when the play was first premiered, the politics of the writing cannot be overlooked and this latest version has been updated to bear more than a passing resemblance to the current situation and administration in the United States of America. Ubu’s red tie, blonde hair, and ill-fitting clothes along with other character traits give us a clear indicator to the direction the show is aiming to take. But there is unrealised potential here. We are being asked to make a comparison between the American leader and Pa Ubu but then where are the other family members or government figures? King Wenceslas (the deposed former monarch), for example, was crying out for a different interpretation. With so many connections to our own political climate and society the company needed to go further with the premise and really commit to the comparison on all levels.
There are some engaging performances in this production and special note should be made of the portrayals of King Wenceslas and Queen Rosemonde whose quick wit and intelligent delivery stand out. These actors also play a number of other lovely cameos in the show. The company as a whole though is a little unbalanced and seems, at times, a little unfocused. Being impactful does not necessarily mean being loud and there are extended sequences in this production of great volume. One of these moments, when the new king is getting rid of things he does not like, goes so far as to become uncomfortable for the audience and a little too close to home in its subject matter – especially as it includes an awkward audience interaction. More thought, perhaps, could have been given to how these political and social issues may be interpreted and experienced by the members of the audience who came from a wide range of backgrounds and locations so as not to create the awkward atmosphere which some in this performance experienced.
Overall there are entertaining moments and some well-delivered performances in this ‘surreal critique of current politics’ but the production as a whole seems a little unpolished and uneven. Just as Paris was not ready for Ubu one feels that Squall + Frenzy are not quite ready with this production although with some more time and focus they certainly could make Ubu great again. Some opportunities were missed and some elements were heavy-handed, but if you’re looking for some absurdist fun with a political twist and audience interactions then this could be the show for you.