Disappointment that this is not going to be a flat-out grunt and grime version of Alfred Jarry’s surreal, scatological 1896 spoof gore-fest is soon tempered by the sly, cool brilliance of Cheek by Jowl’s approach.
It is twenty minutes until we hear that famous French opening exclamation: “Merde!” In a cream, well-appointed modern apartment, the table is set for dinner. Music plays on the hi-fi. Worldwide tributes are being paid on the radio to Mrs Thatcher. But a disaffected young boy with a video camera sulks on the sofa.
The surface cracks. We see close-ups of nostrils, chopped tomatoes in the kitchen, and innards of veal and chicken. The camera lingers on stains and bits of grossness in bedroom and toilet. But – ding, dong – the guests arrive and the low level buzz of small talk is restored. The camera pans round to a vodka bottle. And a green candle.
The grotesque adventures of Mère and Père Ubu are the fantasy projections in a livid green light – Père’s constant term of endearment is, “My green candle” – of the boy Bougrelas (Sylvain Levitte), son of the murdered King Wenceslas (Vincent de Bouard), who develops a potential alliance with the increasingly alcoholic Mère.
The irruptions become ever more violent and disgusting until the apartment is smeared with blood, littered with detritus, blasted with the martial music of Verdi and Wagner, pelted with apples in the Russian war, and the offstage kitchen commandeered as an abattoir where troops of nobles, judges and financiers are decimated with a blender and gulped down a waste hatch.
But always the dinner party chat returns, ever more frantic. Even after the Ubus have rutted like manure-wallowing pigs on their own shag pile, and Père (the increasingly bestial and lunatic Christophe Gregoire) is abandoned in the cave of his own upturned sofa, Mère (the wonderfully pert, funny and sexy Camille Cayol) perches coyly on the side with her shopping bags.
The production works as a two-way metaphor: the subtext of an average dinner party, the surface pretence of a tyrannical regime, and the execution (sic) is brilliantly sustained for nearly two uninterrupted hours. This is Cheek by Jowl’s French company, and the first time I’ve heard the play in its original schoolboy language since Peter Brook’s austere, reined-in version at the Bouffes du Nord.
Director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod have created an inventive, richly comic compromise between the Brook style and the glorious barbaric excesses of a great Hungarian production I once saw at the Katona Joszef in Budapest; this is like a Gallic version of “At home with the Ceausescus.”
And we welcome here a superb sextet of French actors, all of them highly technical and disciplined, delivering the text as though it were De Musset with a twist, and fully alive to the absurdity of their tragic predicament, so that Vincent de Bouard’s Wenceslas, for instance, never looks more pathetic than when wearing a lampshade for a crown or holding a toilet brush as a sceptre. Good sur-titles, too.