“…after all our subtle colour and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.”
(from Autobiographies by W. B Yeats)
The above sentiment was written by the Irish poet W. B. Yeats having watched the very first, incredibly controversial, production of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi on 8 December 1896 in Paris. In Jarry’s wildly riotous and provocative production he saw the beginning of the end for the carefully artistic and subtle craft, which Yeats and his contemporaries had nurtured and grown. Now, almost 120 years later, Jarry’s work is still as colourful, exciting and explosive as it was then, and Cheek By Jowl’s production of this seminal work is currently touring Europe. And it is damn exciting to say the least.
The production, a sell-out in London and many other cities in Europe last year, has been revived for a 2014 tour due to its incredible success. Stopping over at the Cambridge Arts Theatre and then the Barbican in London on its UK leg, the show is then moving on to Portugal, Spain, France, Russia and Switzerland. While the production is entirely performed in French, it has still seen great success across a multitude of locations and cultures. Chatting to Cécile Leterme, who plays La Reine Rosemonde in the production, I wondered whether translating it into English, or any other language, would affect the play’s meaning or the production’s success: “It’s the big issue of translation! Is translating treason?” she commented. “A language, the way it sounds, conveys many things of a country and its culture”.
While I am not a French speaker, watching the production you can’t help but feel that Père Ubu’s ranting tirades and Mère Ubu’s lyrical laments would not have the same effect at all if spouted in the un-poetically dulcet tones of the English tounge. The romanticism of the language also contrasts beautifully against the constant chaos of the production, wonderfully directed and designed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the artistic directors of Cheek by Jowl.
The original play, a cutting and absurdist commentary on dictatorships, sees Père Ubu, a villainous despot, kill the king of Poland to take his crown and proceed to run the country, and himself, into financial and physical ruin in the indulgence of his own greed. With a plethora of different settings, from the interior of a castle to the high and snowy mountains, the show could be a logistical nightmare to stage. However, Cheek by Jowl’s ingenious production frames it as a dinner party being hosted by an entirely beige French couple and the story of Père Ubu and Mère Ubu is brought out in their adolescent son’s angst-stained imagination, envisioning his father, mother and their guests as Jarry’s twisted characters. This means that everything on the stage is at the actor’s disposal to use as whatever they can: a toilet brush for a sword, a lamp shade for a crown and a sofa for a snow-built cave. The glorious melee of mime, violence and imagination creates a stunning work which consistently entertains.
On being asked about the controversy which surrounded the play in its nineteenth century publication and performance, Leterme said: “The incredible strength and intelligence of this version of Ubu Roi… is to propose equivalences of what once was shocking but obviously is not anymore: for instance the opening of the play, the very first word uttered on stage is ‘merde’,” or shit, translated as “shitka” on the production’s surtitles,. “Who cares nowadays if somebody says this, on stage or in real life? But there are equivalences of shocking things in our version: the young boy’s attitude to his parents, and what he means to reveal to the audience.” While the play in itself may no longer be shocking in its content, as we are a generation and a culture used to the satirising of leaders which was not widely practiced at the time of first performance, Cheek by Jowl’s production presents it in a way where the process and thoughts behind it can still be shocking and unnerving.
Perhaps what shines through most prominently in this production is the wonderful sense of play that the company exudes in performance. Leterme explained that “Declan [Donnellan] and Nick [Ormerod] asked us to improvise quite a lot – and we did! We went through the play and invented quite a lot, like children. It’s as if they had drawn and designed the whole thing but we were able to fill in some of the blanks with our own colours so there’s a bit of each of us actors in this.” This energy makes for incredible entertainment, and it is obvious that this has been one of the keys to the show’s success, “because the whole thing is rich but still goes in the same direction of this highly clever vision of Ubu“.
Aside from its approach to performance and building a production, Cheek by Jowl is a truly international company, as its members are based in the UK, France and Russia. Having performed in the company’s French production of Andromaque in 2009 and then returning for Ubu Roi, Leterme says “I have seen a lot of Cheek by Jowl’s productions, either with the Russians or the English. All of them were magnificent, and, although you could recognise Declan and Nick’s artistic sensibility, they still kept a bit of the country’s taste.” A true national and international treasure, Cheek by Jowl has an ethos and practice which shines through its work as it trail blazes a path for truly great modern, international and outstanding theatre.
Ubu Roi by Cheek by Jowl is at the Barbican until 22 June. For more information, visit the Barbican’s website.