November 23, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

Ubu Roi (Cheek by Jowl) @ Theatre of Nations, Moscow

Normally I would not be writing about a production of a Jarry play on this blog. However, given that the play itself draws liberally on Macbeth, Richard III and Hamlet; that this production is by a company about whom I am preparing to write a book; and that I’ve travelled to Moscow in order to see it, I feel justified in making the exception.

Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s Ubu Roi, performed in the original language as part of the company’s French strand of work, offered a revelatory take on the play, blowing apart its farcical excesses to make a coherent set of statements. Much has been said in other reviews about the Oedipal wish-fulfilment enacted through the extended fantasy sequences, but this felt to me just as much about the exposure of middle-class repression and hypocrisy, appropriating the aesthetic qualities of video nasties and silent horror cinema and plastering them across the walls of Ormerod’s impeccably perfect show home. If Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu Roi was about the playing out of fantasies, these seemed to be about much more than the parents.

As Camille Cayol and Christophe Gregoire prepared to receive three friends for dinner, their son Sylvain Levitte lounged on a sofa with a video camera, filming himself and his parents. Lifting a set model used to such great effect in The Tempest and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the imagined world of the stage was divided into two halves – a downstage area comprising living and dining room, and an upstage area of which we only got brief glimpses through two doors at either end. The camera device allowed much more of this world to be realised, as Levitte disappeared from the main stage and the screen (projected onto the dining room wall) showed him rooting through kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms. The point here was Levitte’s ability to see beyond the respectable facade to the fine scatalogical detail – the snot inside his father’s nose, a urine-stained thread on the bathroom carpet, a lingering trace of shit on the rim of the toilet. Mother and Father went around their chores with excruciating banality while Son demonstrated the thoroughness of his vision.

As Father painstakingly ensured every chair was lined up and every picture was perfectly straight, he also took a moment to grope his wife, and it was at this point that the Son leaped upright on the sofa, triggering a transformation. Bathed in green light and accompanied by screeches of music, the parents convulsed like electro-shock victims, becoming Pere and Mere Ubu. Gregoire and Cayol masterfully moved for the rest of the performance between their green-lit (the colour evoking the tinting device of The Matrix) abominations and their naturally lit bourgeois selves. Their similarly dull guests made the same transformations, though Mere and Pere retained the most extremely fragmented fantasy performances, twitching and convulsing throughout the show.

The Oedipal dimension was perhaps the most obvious. The Boy, occasionally filling the role of Bougrelas but always ‘as himself’, played out the fantasy that he imagined, which included having his head buried in the bosom of Cecile Leterme (who became his mother, the Queen, in the play world), whisking his real life mother about the stage in a slow dance and gyrating with her on a table in a club scene before being thrown off by Pere Ubu, and finally engaging in a mano a mano duel with his (real) father. At other times he watched through the camera while the Ubus had sex, his gaze (and, via the screen, that of the audience) focusing on the bouncing of his mother’s breasts and her screams of ecstasy and pain. Sex was portrayed at its most excremental, down to the close-ups of Ubu spitting on his wife’s ankle before licking every inch of her foot. The boy’s fascinated repulsion required the audience to endure, not look away.

Filmic ideas informed much of the rest of the production. The fantasy sequences were particularly reminiscent of silent expressionist cinema, the green light mimicking the shape of a camera shutter with its curved edges creating focus on the centre of the stage. ‘Jump cuts’ allowed the action to snap instantly back to the naturalistic model, humour frequently created by visceral scenes of torture giving way to the parents serving up new courses. And yet the two worlds began to blend further as the food, sofa cushions and other furniture stolen by the play world to serve as torture devices and weapons were left littering the stage, ketchup forming a bloody reminder of horrors on the walls (reminiscent, perhaps, of the opening of Julie Taymor’s Titus). And the squishing sound effect as Ubu killed Vincent de Bouard’s Wenceslas with an egg whisk burrowed into his skull borrowed from the worst of B-horrors.

The play’s most obviously satirical scene, that in which Ubu summarily executes a wide range of functionaries, initially played out as dark farce. Ubu placed a large bag with workmanlike efficiency over the heads of the three gibbering victims, who were escorted offstage into the kitchen where the screams and electronic whirrings of torture devices were followed by Ubu’s reemergence in a bloodied apron, before the same three people appeared again from the other door in new costumes. Mere became increasingly hysterical, but on the third iteration Ubu ordered the house lights up. Leaping into the audience, followed by Mere, he searched for victims. At this point my lack of either French or Russian failed me, but the principle was clear – Ubu’s victims were as legion as the people he had access to, and Mere’s singling out of one woman for wearing Louis Vitton made this crystal clear. On returning to the stage, in a final film reference, Ubu promised (in his only English line) ‘I’ll be back’.

Donnellan’s inventive direction ensured a constant variety of scenes, extending the possibilities of the three key viewing models (the naturalistic scene, the expressionist scene, the live filming). Bordure (Xavier Boiffier) appeared behind an opened door to be tortured by Ubu, and Levitte’s camera captured the gouging of his eye in horrific detail, only slightly mitigated by the recognition of the ‘blood’ as ketchup. Later, to huge cheers from the Russian audience, the Tsar (de Bouard again) crashed in to the swirling of snow from the other door. Pastiches of nationalistic pride punctuated the war scenes, classical anthems blaring out as the soldiers moved in slow motion. Even Bougrelas was not immune from taking part, at one time becoming so excited by his swinging of his imaginary sword that he failed to notice the scene had reverted to the naturalistic mode behind him.

The production’s excesses built to an inevitable conclusion. Mere and Pere reunited and began clawing at one another in the shadow of the upturned sofa that served as Ubu’s hiding place, but here this served to occasion Levitte’s final act. No longer Bougrelas, but not entirely the Boy, he locked the doors and put out the lights, while drawing a pistol. The others reverted, now frightened dinner guests in a wrecked room, and using his camera light to pinpoint and trap them, Levitte shot each one in cold blood, playing out the culmination of his fantasy in a bleak finale. And yet, then, the adults rose and returned oblivious to the dining room table, continuing their inane chatter. Levitte rose also, crossed the room, took a seat and joined in. The teenager’s playtime was over, and Levitte took his place with the adults.

This extraordinary ending calls for further thought, but seemed to me to be no happy ending. As brutal and difficult to watch as the boy’s comic fantasy had been, it was also characterised by a life, audacity and honesty that seemed absent from the bleached, anaemic world of the dinner party. The son seemed less a danger to the parents than the precision and dullness of their lives were to him, and his final acquiescence offered both momentary relief but also a return to a world in which no one actually spoke to one another, beyond the inaudible pleasantries with which the adults passed their version of the evening. In introducing filmic techniques allowing for the juxtaposition of two world views and subjective positions, Donnellan and Ormerod opened up a challenging play as a potent social commentary. I can only hope I get to see it with English subtitles before too long.

Posted in Theatre review