Cheek by Jowl present Ubu Roi until Saturday, June 14.
One of the most memorable productions most of us have seen in a lifetime, this Ubu Roi, directed by Declan Donnellan, has a pristine clean, white set of a modern sitting room, white sofa, white walls, white paintings, the dining table laid for a dinner party with a white cloth and a bottle of white wine. You walk in and think: ‘I want a sitting room like that’.
A couple are dressed in beige, she in a halter-neck dress reminiscent of the one Marilyn Monroe wore over that grill, he in a linen jacket and slacks. They twitter over their table preparations while a youth languishing on the settee uses a video camera to film everything. He goes off stage and he’s still filming, the chopping of the salad in the kitchen, a visit to the loo, everything.
Very little seems to be happening and what there is, is happening off stage, you are seeing it apparently via the youth’s video camera. Your heart sinks. The play may have been written in 1896 but is this it? Theatre of the absurd? You’ve been told it’s nearly two hours with no interval, it’s going to be a long night.
Then the play takes off, it’s gripping and it’s funny. A superb cast of six switches with the flick of a shadow from the sedate dinner party with happy chattering guests to the violence of war and conquest...and suddenly back again smiling at the table.
A self-made king decides he will invade Poland, kill the king and become king himself. Wonderfully, his armour is kitchen equipment, his crown a lampshade, his weapons a rolling pin and a hand-held blender, his cloak the bobbled mat from the bathroom.
There are snatches of scenes reminiscent of Macbeth, Hamlet and Lear, there are pastiches of acting styles. The well-observed performances and movement are sublime. This is heaven-sent straight to the stage. What was Jarry saying about power, greed and table manners with such prescience in the 1890s? He was saying everything. It’s remarkable that this was written before the First and Second World Wars.
Yet this is far from a didactic play. It is a masterpiece of subtle entertainment and this is a masterclass in how to do it.
For sheer energy, characterisation, fluidity of movement – oh hell, just leaping about the stage, body language, facial expression and performances that cross any language barrier, this is a riveting, riotous cast. Camille Cayol and Christophe Gregoire as Mere and Pere Ubu are indeed monarchs among princes, maybe I should say first among equals because this is truly ensemble acting.
This is a firework display. It is good champagne. It’s unforgettable. It turns other types of theatre to drizzle when you have been in the sun. And you will never see dinner parties in the same light again.