OPERA / Not in front of the children: Andrew Toovey's adaptation of Jarry's Ubu Roi gets back to basics. Mark Pappenheim reports

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The Independent Culture
PREMIERED to a riotous reception in 1890s Paris, Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi is one of those sacred texts of theatrical modernism more honoured on the page than on the stage. Much hailed as a precursor of Dada, Artaud, Surrealism and even the Comic Strip, Jarry's grotesque Shakespearian parody of a power-crazed cretin's relentless and ruthless rise to royal power has long seemed to promise more as a concept than it has ever managed to deliver as drama.

For Andrew Toovey, whose opera Ubu has its world premiere at the Cardiff Festival on Wednesday, it was that very combination of the play's legendary status as a cultural icon and the more earthbound reality of its literary manifestation that made Jarry's adolescent squib such a suitable case for musical treatment.

A former pupil of Jonathan Harvey, Michael Finnissy and the late Morton Feldman, Toovey first came across Jarry's play at university and liked its air of violence and aggression. 'But at the time I thought it was too good for me, too big a subject in a way.' Now 30, he says that he has never found any stage production entirely convincing - 'Its ridiculous diversity makes it lose focus too often.' The best he has seen was the recent French version which, by having only the murderous Pa and Ma Ubu performed by actors and all the other parts played by a bunch of fruit and veg, focused the drama back on to its two central characters.

Toovey's own solution has been to pare the text down from five acts to two and cut the cast from thousands to five. He admits to a slight unease about pillaging the play in this way, 'taking only the best bits from it - I keep thinking how I'd feel if someone did the same to my opera. But it's certainly a stronger, tighter structure as a result.'

'This is not a setting of Jarry's text, thank God]' says Keith Turnbull, the Canadian director of this premiere touring production, jointly presented by Music Theatre Wales and the Banff Centre, Alberta, Canada. 'You get such conceptual excitement from that play, but when you actually go back to the text - Oh, man, is it long and boring . . . But what Jarry did - and why they had that famous riot - is that he basically deconstructed 19th-century high art. And he did it without telling anyone what he was doing, which made them really pissed off]'

What's worse, Jarry's demolition job started at the very top, with the title-role. 'The great tragic villains . . .' continues Turnbull '. . . Macbeth, Othello, Coriolanus, Tamburlaine - have always been associated with high language, deep, dark moments of the soul, a profound sense of their own evil. Jarry, too, gets to the very centre of his hero and exposes his raw psyche - but, when he does, you find out he's just a gluttonous, power-mad idiot. And you find you actually like the vacuous, stupid little bugger, in the same way we like Richard Nixon or Margaret Thatcher - just because they keep going.'

What has perhaps most endeared the play to so many generations of undergraduates is the way Jarry so crudely underlines the banality of evil with all the anality of his adolescent humour. Toovey's adaptation retains all the anatomical and lavatorial detail - with conspicuous on-stage consumption of fresh goose droppings, lashings of lewd language, a coprophiliac commander-in-chief, and a Pa Ubu preceded everywhere by his 3ft phallus. 'That dick kind of focuses it all together,' says Toovey. 'It carries the idea of him being just one big prick, but also the idea of everyone being a bit envious of him.'

As for the four-letter words, Toovey doesn't see them as integral to the plot: 'There are soft alternatives,' he concedes. 'But it's just how these characters are - like the next-door neighbours who spend all their time swearing at each other.' As Turnbull adds: 'The word 'comic opera' has now gotten surrounded by the idea of something silly and pink. But this is a real comic opera, funny and satiric. We're just not used to hearing someone singing, so beautifully, 'Fuck off]' But then, one of the things this piece is about is taking away the high tone-iness of opera, because a lot of that gets in the way of the music.'

And music is very much to the fore in this piece. Where Jarry was satirising the grand traditions of 19th-century theatre, Toovey has mined the comic potential of Grand Opera. Ubu is just stuffed with parody and pastiche. 'There is one aria,' says Turnbull, 'which is absolutely Gounod's Ave Maria - and it's a scene where Ma Ubu is combing a turd while reading a story to Captain Crap.' There are allusions to Bach and bel canto - 'with a lot of trilling,' says Toovey, 'like putting helium into Joan Sutherland'; to Handel and Mozart; even to the American Minimalists. 'So there's a kind of musical sideplot apart from the story of this sadistical, power-crazed dictator - a hidden critique of musical trends.'

The play's Shakespearian echoes add another level of allusion. 'Being in English, it will probably have more of an element of piss- take on all that,' the composer comments. 'I couldn't help making Ma Ubu more like Lady Macbeth - or rather, more like Katerina Ismailova (the heroine of Shostakovich's The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) - a dominant, pushing force who cons Ubu into doing all sorts of terrible things that otherwise, being so stupid, he wouldn't have thought of doing.'

The deconstructive element extends to the vocal casting: Prince Buggerlips is played by a mezzo; the King and the Queen and the Bear are all played by one contralto; Ma Ubu, the hero's mercenary and meretricious wife, is a tenor; and Captain Crap, the great general, is sung by a countertenor. 'He should really be a bass, I suppose,' says Toovey, 'but instead he has this high, beautiful voice. It fits with the slightly perverse nature of the whole thing to go against expectations like that.'

Despite the cross-casting, Keith Turnbull has been keen to avoid camp at all costs: 'These are drag roles in the true sense of the word,' he says. 'The girl playing Prince Buggerlips has a real boy soprano quality - nothing to do with panto or music hall, far more to do with Mozartian or Shakespearian cross-dressing. And Gale Oxley (the tenor playing Ma Ubu) is the quintessential Ohio corn- fed farm boy, about 6ins taller than the Pa Ubu, twice as broad and not at all camp. Which makes it funnier.'

If the casting crosses established boundaries, so too does the vocal writing. 'Holy Moses]' says Turnbull. 'The coloratura parts are a minor third above the Queen of the Night] Ma Ubu has, I think, something like 380 notes above the stave. The baritone is forever going from chest to head to falsetto - back and forth, back and forth. The bass, who doesn't appear for the entire first act, enters and sings 14 low Ds . . .'

Like Jarry's play, Toovey's opera has no single target, but flails about, aiming at any and every target within reach. 'There's a real sense of adolescent irresponsibility about it,' boasts Turnbull. 'It doesn't spend a lot of time debating political or artistic correctness. Just as you're chuckling at the fact that it's just blown a raspberry at your neighbour's sacred cow, it blows one at yours.'

'Ubu' opens 8pm Wed, St David's Hall, Cardiff. Readers can buy pounds 6.50, pounds 9.50 and pounds 12.50 tickets at two for the price of one by calling 0222 371236, quoting this offer and taking this page when collecting tickets. For tour details see listings.

(Photographs omitted)