Sunday 22 December 2013


Cheek By Jowl, Barbican Theatre
Should you not be familiar with this infamous play, an absurdist assault on the senses, know first that it's first Parisian staging in 1896 led to instant audience uproar. (Author Alfred Jarry later claimed he'd hired goons to stir by countering the rest of the audience, cheering when they booed and vice versa.) At the inaugural Dadaist club, the Cabaret Voltaire, extracts from the play were read. It's plot and, more important, tone were actually best described by another audience member I overheard - “imagine 'Macbeth' if it had been written by Cartman from 'South Park'.” (And I really wish I'd said that.)

Initially, I'll admit, I was suspicious of the notion of a version with live actors. I've always contended the play works best either with puppets, as was a Jarry's original intention, or as an animation. (The first public performance used actors, but masked and described by Jarry as “man-sized marionettes”.)

Both mediums lend themselves to render the title character as monstrous and diminutive, and are least likely to try and humanise the sick beast. (He was described by the Independent's Paul Taylor as “an ovoid oaf... a Humpty Dumpty monarch with a loo-brush for a sceptre and a set of a lavatorial id-like appetites ungoverned by the least suggestion of a superego.”) Crucially, his motives must be as petty-minded as his means depraved. In particular, the faintest whiff of 'proper' acting, of digging Stanislavaskian depths into his green candle, are to be avoided at all costs.

As it transpires, Cheek By Jowl have found an ingenious way around this. They give a performance that's (in the colloquial sense of the word) schizophrenic. They start out with a naturalistically played scene, a dinner party held in the gleaming white of a designer home. This then flips arbitrary into the id-world of Ubu, the gestures suddenly spasmodic and grotesque, the voices strangulated and guttural. Lighting switches and projections then change the environment almost entirely, even as we're aware we're looking at the same scene.

That last part is crucial. Throughout the props remain the same as the standard domestic paraphernalia – a lampshade becomes a crown, a food blender a weapon, silver foil booty, like children's play transforming the meaning of objects while their parents are out.

In one memorable scene the dinner guests arrive, then promptly reverse out again – as if in a backwards film. Their seemingly spontaneous gestures, their waving and hugging are reproduced exactly, suggesting they were never so naturalistic in the first place.

...all of which is of course as Freudian as my green candle. One is id to the other's ego, the sublimated struggle of each against all, buried only slightly beneath those bourgeois pleasantries. Proceedings swap jolting back and forth between the two, chalk cut with cheese, never giving you the chance to get used to either.

The resetting is perpetuated through the performance, and needs to be. Back then, you could stun an audience with the word “merde”, which is precisely how Jarry started this play. Yet literal versions of Ubu staged now, “merdes” all present, would no longer have any shock value left to trade. It would be like the Sex Pistols reforming and... oh, hang on, that actually happened. Anyway, you take the point. The closer the imitation, the more the point will be lost. It's a straight choice between preserving the form and keeping the spirit. Which is, I suspect, why director Declan Donellan reacted with umbrage when an interviewer described the play as a classic - “I don’t do [these plays] because they’re classics; I do them because they’re good.” Which is of course precisely the right attitude.

And Ubu without the accoutrements, the hood, the spiral on the pot belly, works like the vampire without the cape or the superhero without the cowl. Which is to say, it works. It short-circuits expectations, discards what once might have been emblems but are now merely heirlooms, to get closer to the heart of things. The result is a richly grotesque seam of black humour, where you're often not sure whether to respond with shock or mirth, and mostly can't help but do both.

The play is performed entirely in French, with surtitles for us linguistically challenged Brits. Much like the live actors, I wondered how this would work. Keeping to the original language is not necessary. Jarry's text could hardly be more basely anti-poetic so is hardly likely to lose in translation. But, much like the live actors, it works surprisingly well. Our received images of French may be as the language of romance, diplomacy and expensive consumption, but in actuality it lends itself to the guttural with ease.

While the performance was almost ceaselessly inventive, it should be said it was also overlong. In that sense it was actorly, as if those performances were too priceless to be shoehorned into mere purpose. Yet 'Ubu' should, above all things, be a short, sharp, shock. This was particularly noticeable in the opening. As said, the 'classic' opening cannot be kept, and swapping it for a naturalistic scene may be smart. But it risked going beyond lulling us into a false sense of security, and instead sending us to sleep. And what foreshadows and undercurrents there were seemed a rather banal literalisation of the theme, reaching their nadir with the camcorder close-ups of the stains in the toilet rug.

The film projections could also feel superfluous. The semi-abstract ones, used for scene-setting worked well. Much of the play is set in what Jarry described as “Poland, that is to say Nowhere.” He suggested getting someone to walk on and “put up signs indicating the locations of the various scenes”. By comparison,'Hamlet'
is a historical documentary about Denmark of scrupulous accuracy. Suggesting at the setting, rather than indelibly taking us there, is the perfect thing to do. But the repeated live projections of the scene we were actually watching seemed gimmicky, done simply because they could.

But more problematic is the character of the teenage son, brooding under his sullen fringe. At times he seemed able to switch things between the 'ego' and 'id' settings, as if he was magically in charge of the play's remote control. Perhaps we were in similar territory to Haneke's film 'Hidden', with the teenager as the inside outsider, neither guest nor host at the dinner party - and so able to see it for what it is.

If so, it feels too close for comfort to the self-image of the teenager. 'Ubu' is of course not a politically sophisticated play, nor is it intended to be. Jarry wrote it as a young man, early versions while still at school in order to satirise a teacher. Running on pith and bile, it in many ways was a punk record before its time. Yet to simply flatter the teenager as a natural rebel seems too much. The child is of course living off the silver foil of the parents, even as he emanates disdain from their sofa.

There's also an odd connection between the family teenager and the avenging Prince Boggerlas, who is of course not an outsider but very much a character within the play. It's like he casts himself in the play and so gets to make himself the hero. The climactic scene, as he stalks and dispatches his adult antagonists, seemed to push things beyond 'Hidden' into Lynne Ramsey's post-Columbine 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'. (The Independent review even suggested the alternate title 'We Need to Talk About Boggerlas.')

This scene is notably not in Jarry's original play, where the monster survived to belch and grab again. And we seem encouraged to fit it with another added scene – the beginning. In one he prowls the house with a camcorder, in the other a gun, as if we should find an equivalence between them. But a post-Columbine Boggerlas is frankly boggling. Any suggestion his counter-Ubu is merely another Ubu, a monster begat by such monstrousness, does not seem to have been reflected anywhere else up to this point.

And how could it be? The teenager was more than half a century distant when 'Ubu' was first performed. His roots are more in the grasping nature of the child, of infantile fixations being grotesquely indulged by the power inherent in an adult body.

Jarry himself came to be nicknamed Ubu, and as time passed took on more and more of his gait and manners. Which suggests to me Jarry's intent was different to all that, both more potent and more incisive. Who is Ubu, chest stuffed with medals he was awarded himself for valour in furthering his own self-interest? Of course he's us. He's every self-centred thought you ever had and suppressed shame-faced, turned into a totem to assail you. He only does what we would do, given his half-a-chance.

Jarry himself said “I wanted the stage to stand before the public like one of those mirrors in fairy tales... where the vicious villain sees himself with bulls' horns and a dragons' body, like the exaggerations of his own vicious nature.”
Or, to translate into pithier and more modern parlance - “that's you, that is.” We become represented by a puppet so he can work like a fetish, drawing out the evil that it may be shut away somewhere else.

Modernism is always ridiculed for assuming it has a radical audience, while actually relying on a bourgeois one. Yet 'Ubu' is aimed straight between the eyes of that bourgeois audience. Teenagers may have not originally been in Jarry' sights. But they should not escape his distorting mirror. None should escape.

(This, incidentally, is why I've always considered it misplaced to tie Ubu too closely to Franco, Botha or any actual tinpot dictator. Ubu may in many ways resemble Brecht's Arturo Ui from the play of the same name. But while Ui was tagged as a diminutive copy of Hitler, Ubu's pot belly is broader than that.)

But perhaps the true test of an adaptation isn't whether it re-works the text into a new configuration, but whether it portrays the text in a new light. At one point Ubu, looking for fresh financiers to bag and dispatch, the better to line his pockets, stalks the audience. Breaking into English for the only time, he reminded us that where we sat bordered the City of London – one of the world's great financial institutions, whose recent Ubu-like greed and folly has brought misery to millions.

But mostly it brought to light that, if the teenager is in many ways a problem of the production, the production is still able to find a problem in the play. While the play became a darling of modernist shock, it is in many ways quite reactionary. First performed during the dawning days of Modernism, it looks back as much as it does forward. Ubu's crimes are entirely bourgeois; his insatiable greed, his lack of decorum or respect for tradition. His self-coronation scene compares him to Napoleon.

While the Tzar is referred to as “builder of mountains”, a proper toff who rules by divine right. Lacking these reserves and refinements, Ubu goes all-out to sate his senses. The tomb-robbing scene sums this up the best. Gold is buried with the ancestors out of respect for tradition. In seeking to rob it, Ubu is seduced by its cash value and fails to see its true worth.

Perhaps this is a side-effect of the play's purpose, of holding that distorting mirror up to the bourgeoisie. For they do not through choice distinguish themselves from the proletariat so much as the landowning class, grandiloquent and indulgent, too comfortable where they sit to be driven by avarice.

The downside of Jarry's anti-naturalism emerges here, for one of the things unnecessary to show on stage becomes the armies pressed into fighting one another. The final line of Jarry's original was “there'll always be a Poland. Otherwise there wouldn't be any Poles.” Yet this Poland is Nowhere. And no Poland means no Poles. A play that makes the bourgeoisie monsters, but monsters according to their own compass, may be congenitally unable to come out any other colour than Ubu green. Perhaps a play devised in a boarding school, however irreverent, was always going to be circumscribed by it's walls. In this way the anti-bourgeois is like the teenager. He is still defined by being bourgeois, unless or until he finds some other centre of gravity.

So, in inventing a fresh perspective from which to see this play, the production exposed a political weakness endemic to it. It may seem strange to feel grateful for having been shown one of your favourite plays in a lesser light. But yet I am!

Coming soon! 2014 would seem most likely. For we seem to be at the end of the year again. However did that happen? So the next few weeks (or, more likely, couple of months) will be dedicated to some quite unseemly catching up. Be it gigs, exhibitions or (as here) plays. If Ubu's sin is avarice, mine is surely tardiness...

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