A pristine living room sets the stage for Cheek By Jowl’s latest production at Warwick Arts Centre, a French language adaptation of Ubu Roi. With white panelled walls, purposefully placed ornaments and freshly plumped cushions, there is an ominous sense that this close-to-perfect, middle class domain will not last. Almost on cue, a young man tours the other rooms in the home, his findings projected onto the panelled walls; a stray hair in a bed and a skinned meat carcass are magnified, a vulgar juxtaposition alongside the set.
Following the success of the company’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore last year, also at the Arts Centre, this 1896 play by Alfred Jarry explores the lure and consequences of power struggles, wealth and greed. Jarry’s work was the precursor to the Surrealist and Theatre of the Absurd movements, elements of which feature heavily in Declan Donnellan’s adaptation. Père Ubu’s unrelenting quest for the crown of Poland and determination to kill anyone who falls between him and his coveted prize is played out alongside a Parisian dinner party, all the while within the walls of the decadent apartment. After a slightly longer than necessary monotonous conversation between the hosts, it takes no more than a change of lighting for the son’s parents to be transformed from poised hosts into the animalistic Père Ubu and Mère Ubu.
The production continues in this chaotic manner, contrasting the mature and composed dinner party with melodramatic battles using hand held whisks and tin foil. The inventive use of the flat pack IKEA furniture and sofa as a fort aid the seamless transitions between the two settings, with the simple use of lighting to create a snowy battleground an added bonus to the already genius aesthetic by Nick Ormerod. The use of a lampshade in place of Père Ubu’s crown further enhances the pull of Jarry’s play on the domestic setting. Combining this landscape of devastation and blood, demonstrated aptly through the splatters of a ketchup bottle, the production begs the question of whether a middle class dinner party is also a battleground for one-upmanship and competition amongst the participants.
Although this is a French-language production, the movement throughout (directed by Jane Gibson) is mostly a sufficient substitute for the spoken word, allowing the audience to remain fully immersed in the chaos on stage without directing their gaze upwards to the English surtitles for a translation of every line.
Cheek By Jowl has created a dinner party as scandalous as they come. Ubu Roi is a messy yet beautiful production, and one not to be missed.
Ubu Roi is playing at Warwick Arts Centre until 2 February. For more information and tickets, see http://www.cheekbyjowl.com/ubu_roi.php