Ubu Roi (Barbican Theatre)
Cheek By Jowl's explosive production presses all the right buttons
More than 100 years since it first came to the stage and almost caused a riot, Alfred Jarry's savage and ridiculous comedy is still laugh-out-loud funny and in Cheek By Jowl's accomplished hands absurd, surreal and constantly surprising.
A parody of Macbeth, it tells the story of Pa Ubu who is convinced by his power-hungry wife to kill the King of Poland and take his crown. He becomes a despot driven by greed to raise taxes and kill all manner of people. There's a revolution, all-out war, an avenging crown prince and even some torture.
All of this happens, in this production, in the muted creams of an up-market Parisian flat. We start with a middle class modern day couple and their son as they prepare for a dinner party. Suddenly, the lights flash green and it's all jerky movements and spasms across the stage – Walking Dead zombies meet Reagan from The Exorcist (without the head spinning).
This physicality makes this production a joy to watch. The cast use the stage as a playground - leaping about, climbing over furniture and crawling across the floor - and all of this is matched by an equally impressive vocal range, particularly from Camille Cayol as Mère Ubu whose keening hysteria is perfectly balanced against her drunken slurs and authoritative voice on high.
The undoubted star of the show is Christopher Grégoire in the title role. His slide from gracious host to crazed, hobbling despot (and sometimes back again) is superb and he's an engaging presence with perfect comic timing.
The use of a video camera to project some of the onstage action onto the back wall of the set not only adds a smart nod to technology and its use in theatre but also allows the action to take place under a table and still be seen by all - another example of the clever use of set and space throughout this production. More importantly however, zooming in on one of the more intimate moments between Mère and Pa Ubu, we're given an up-close look at a usually secret moment.
This isn't simply voyeurism - although there is rather a lot of licking – it's an enforced look at people at their most primal and it is this vision that is at the heart of the piece. Food is thrown, toilet brushes are used as weapons, a lampshade as a crown and tin foil as riches but there is beneath this ridiculousness an exploration of very real, very human, violence and passion.
This production does justice to the mad-cap, boundry-pushing Ubu that Jarry created and while it might not cause a riotous response it won't for a minute leave you cold – love it or hate it, you won't sit on the fence.