Declan Donnellan is, for my money, the best director working in theatre today. That may be a bold statement – but every one of his pieces that I have been privileged to see has been a theatrical highlight of my year. Ubu Roi is a piece about which I knew very little and so I was more than intrigued to see what he and his experienced team could conjure.
The answer is 100 minutes of theatrical magic that poses more questions than it answers, challenges you to think what it is to be in the theatre and astounds you as to how simple story-telling devices can be deployed to such devastating effect.
Jarry’s text is littered with allusions to Shakespeare and it will come as no surprise that Donnellan exploits this to the full – and also uses it as the basis for a framing device that bridges the gap between the real world and the absurdist nightmare of Jarry’s characters. I could go into more detail but I feel this is a production that works best when you know as little as possible before it starts – and to just let it explode in front of you.
Central to the success of the production is the absolute trust that the actors have in themselves and in Donnellan. I cannot recall seeing actors be so prepared to take huge risks – physically and vocally – in pursuit of story-telling. From the subtlest of improvised chit-chat to the grossest of human acts, they commit utterly – and the effect is spell-binding. It feels almost churlish to pick out any of the six actors but I was utterly mesmerised by Camille Cayol as Mere Ubu – one of the most expressive pieces of acting you are likely to see this year.
Donnellan’s directing is forensic in its detail. Through the use of recorded and live video and the performances he has shaped with his actors, he holds up all of human life to the closest of inspections and takes us from the most inane of household devices through to the grimiest parts of human existence in a way that will have you thinking about the play for many hours after you leave the theatre.
It is hard to do this production justice in mere words. It has to be seen to be appreciated.
Oh yes, it is in French. But don’t let that put you off – the performances transcend the language barrier. Go. No, I insist! Just see it.
Ubu Roi transfers to the Barbican from 10-20 April 2013