The latest play in the Barbican’s Dancing around Duchamp season is a ‘Surreal’ masterpiece created long before Marcel Duchamp and André Breton had ever been heard of.
Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play sees Pa and Ma Ubu (Christophe Grégoire and Camille Cayol) go on the rampage. Aided by his wife, Pa Ubu kills the Polish King Wenceslas, seizes his crown, accumulates wealth, dispatches judges and financiers, and finally meets his end taking on the Russian Tsar.
Not only do Jarry’s points on human nature now feel as relevant as ever, but they may actually have been enhanced by events he could never have foreseen. The mass slaughters portrayed feel synonymous with the wars and genocides of the twentieth century, while the notion of buying subjects off as an alternative to ruling justly would seem as relevant as ever. The precariousness of power is also revealed, however, for when Ubu levies a tax on marriage, people simply stop tying the knot.
In Cheek by Jowl’s production, directed by Declan Donnellan, the action is staged in a contemporary bourgeois home during a dinner party. This heightens the absurdity by pegging the power hungry couple to a modern domestic setting where kitchen utensils become weapons, lampshades crowns and tin foil treasure.
Brilliantly lit, with a camera filming and projecting some of the action live, the play is frequently intense, and yet some of the horror and gore is still left to the imagination. Perhaps best of all is the sheer physicality of the experience with the cast’s skilful movements brilliantly capturing a scene played out in reverse, and commando style missions. The play is performed in French with English surtitles, and this production thrives on both the language of the original and the unique brand of action that it brings to it.
Until 20 April at the Barbican’s Silk Street Theatre, Silk Street, EC2Y 8DS with start times of 14.30 and 19.30. Tickets (£21-26): 020 7638 8891 or click here.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket from Kate Morley PR.
Photo: The forerunner of absurd theatre: Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, © Johan Persson.