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Theatre review: Ubu Roi, Barbican, London


This play by the 23 year old Alfred Jarry caused a sensation when it was premiered in Paris in 1896. A somewhat hysterical W B Yeats subsequently asked “what more is possible? After us, the Savage God”.

It's a piece that has echoes of other murderous tyrants, from Macbeth to Napoleon, only to intimate implicitly that these figure were models of sensitive public responsibility by comparison with its egregious protagonist. An ovoid oaf, Ubu is a Humpty Dumpty monarch with a loo-brush for a sceptre and a set of a lavatorial id-like appetites ungoverned by the least suggestion of a superego. His Lady Macbeth-like wife, who spurs him on to kill the King of Poland and usurp his throne, is arguably even worse. And to cap it all, they are le dernier cri of common bourgeois taste.  

This exhilaratingly fresh and witty take on the play – by director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod of Cheek by Jowl, here deploying their brilliant French ensemble – has a blackly hilarious twist. The proceedings are not conveyed as third-person reality but from the skewed perspective of a wishful fantasist. The location is the kind of elegantly moneyed contemporary Gallic drawing room that could be the setting for one of Yasmina Reza's quasi-philosophical divertissements. 

But for the first ten minutes or so, we take in these surroundings through the hand-held camera of the household's disaffected, overgrown-adolescent son (Sylvain Levitte). In bug-eyed censorious/prurient close-up, we see glazed gastro-porny meat dishes readied for the dinner party and lingering looks at the bathroom fittings, including in one unforgettably grotesque touch, a pedestal mat with a cloacal stain.

That pedestal mat winds up a regal stole round the shoulders of the father of the household i(Christophe Gregoire) who doubles as Ubu in a production that keeps flipping, with laugh-out-loud switches of intensity, between the babble of an ordinary bourgeois private function and the madly caricature epic misadventures of the royal pair. These are evidently the projections of their son who races around stage-managing the events (and whether they correspond to some inner truth about his folks or not remains a moot point). 

Ubu as a type has been used, in modern theatre, to examine everyone from Idi Amin to Ceausescu, and you could say this Oedipal domestication of the piece plays down that dimension. But the young man casts himself as the Poland's rightful heir Boggerlas and well, put it this way, a good subtitle for the show, as it turns out, would be “We Need to Talk About Boggerlas”

To 20 April; 020 7638 8891