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Ubu Roi (Tour - Cambridge)

How do you re-create for an audience in 2014 the sheer effrontery of a play by a 15-year old which shocked theatregoers in 1896?

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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If you're Declan Donnellan working with a French cast for this new Cheek by Jowl production of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, you keep the cast down to six actors. You also let designer Nick Ormerod create an elegantly bleached-out Parisian apartment of the present day.

This is then cleverly made anarchically surreal through Pascal Noël's lighting, the video sequences of Benoit Simon and Quentin Vigier and a soundscape which at times suggests conversations faintly heard through a wall or on the radio.

Christophe Grégoire & Camille Cayol

Christophe Grégoire is magnificent in the title role. We meet him first as the culinary host of the dinner party, as urbane as his couture-clad wife (Camille Cayol) and their guests. On a sofa to the side of the expanded stage lurks young Bougrelas, who Sylvain Levitte starts by making into the alienated teenager of every parent's nightmares.

Largely ignoring what's around him, he's fixated on a hand-held camera with which to explore his own orifices and the less pleasant parts of the flat. Not to mention the relationship between Père and Mère Ubu. The dinner-party guests are Rosemonde (Cécile Leterme), Wenceslas (Romain Cottard) and Bordure (Xavier Boiffier).

We're then transported into Ubu's power struggle to murder the king, rule Poland, eliminate any hint of opposition, grab everyone else's wealth and invade the Ukraine (does nothing ever change?) to gain yet more riches before (sort of) escaping to Lithuania.

All this is played out within the fast-disintegrating chic of the haute-bourgeoise setting at breakneck speed amplified by a devious array of kitchen implementaria.

If Grégoire dominates, which is as it should be, Cayol spills rapidly from the epitome of Parisian chic into a drink-taking harridan, as greedy in her own way as Ubu himself. Levitte switches equally smoothly from spoilt layabout into heroic avenger of his parents.

In many ways, Bordure is a reflection of Ubu, and Boiffier makes this plain. Leterme comes into her own as the dispossessed queen with Cottard assuming the regal and imperial roles.

If you have a mind for history, then foreknowledge colours the later scenes with its own palette without ever distracting from the immediacy of what's on the stage – and occasionally spilling over into the front row of the auditorium.

Ubu Roi has had its defenders as well as its critics from that Théâtre de l'Oeuvre première to more recent productions both in French and in English. It begins by thoroughly bewildering us, but ends with the audience thoroughly engaged. And if that isn't good theatre, then I don't know what is.

Ubu Roi runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 14 June, at the Barbican, London 18-22 June and then tours internationally until 5 February 2015.