Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Perfectly irresponsible lunacy

Ubu Rex (Ubu Roi)

Castaway Community Theatre , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , May 15, 2003
“Isn’t injustice as good as justice?” the tyrant Pa Ubu barks at Poland’s magistrates, whom he is about to dismiss and ‘liquidate.’ In his personal view, it is, as he later announces. ‘With this new system," he explains of his extortionate tax reform plan, “I’ll make a fortune. Then I’ll kill everyone in the world and go away.”

In Castaway Community Theatre’s Ubu Rex (Ubu Roi), now playing at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Alfred Jarry’s bizarre parody of Macbeth sounds almost as raucously ridiculous and horrific as it must have to its original spectators. On the evening of 10 December 1896 at Paris's Théâtre L’Oeuvre, dazed and infuriated by Jarry's outburst they erupted into what director David Blumfield's program note calls a ‘riot.' In retrospect, Jarry’s revolt against absurd ideologies governing the making of art, policy, and war has been called the precursor to the twentieth-century Theatre of the Absurd.

If you like plays of that tradition – such as Beckett’s, Ionesco’s, and Pinter’s – then go see Ubu. If you don’t, see Ubu anyway because Blumfield’s staging is exciting, provocative, and surprisingly funny.

Blumfield casts six actors as Pa Ubu and six actresses as his dragon lady, Ma Ubu. This adds an additional layer of chaos totally in keeping with Jarry’s style, and reinforces Jarry’s insistence that the Ubus remain stock types instead of three-dimensional characters. Jim Finnis, Simon Strain, and Catrin Hughes stand out from the crowd as particularly strong yet playful speakers of Jarry’s dialogue. Derek Ford as King Wenceslas, who plays Duncan to the Ubus’ Macbeths, is delightfully cavalier and naïve. Susan Chapman’s Queen Rosamund sends up her own tragic pose wonderfully, in lines spoken half in English and half in the original French. The cast as a whole demonstrates that amdram productions can challenge actors far more than some professional ones, and that there are amdram actors who can, with the guidance of the right director, certainly rise to the challenge.

The design contributes to the carnival atmosphere established in Jarry’s script. The Arts Centre stage has been painted to look like a giant Snakes and Ladders board, and candy-coloured snakes’ heads pop up through the floorboards at the feet of Ubu’s throne. A series of platforms branch out from the stage into the auditorium. Invading the audience’s space, they serve as stepping steps up to the final platform and the throne build upon it, which floats on the sea of seats about halfway into the centre section. About half of the spectators watch from risers upstage. With spectators on stage and set built over the auditorium, designer Rick Gough matches Jarry’s breaking of conventional boundaries.

The costume design, devised by the company, is also original and startling. In it, 1980s punk apparel clashes with Pa Ubu’s green military uniforms; bridal-inspired creations apparently recycled from curtains; and the odd Elizabethan ruff paired with fishnets and garter. Jarry would probably have loved that Prince Boggerlas’s fearsome ancestral sword is an inflatable toy hammer, that the Scrolls of Law are represented by loo roll, and that gaffer tape serves both as the Russian ruler's forearm armour and an imprisoned rebel's fetters.

What was Jarry trying to achieve in this play, the first of his Ubu trilogy? Pa Ubu claims that his battle plan is to “fire into the general melee.” Maybe that was Jarry’s objective. Blumfield suggests as much in his promise, on behalf of the cast, “to present Jarry’s irresponsible lunacy… in the most irresponsible, chaotic and unforgivable manner we can manage.” Despite Blumfield’s caveat, this staging needs no forgiveness.

* a version of this review appears in THE WESTERN MAIL (23/05/02).

Reviewed by: Rebecca Nesvet

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