The scenery looks familiar: a well-appointed, upper-middle-class home that could be the setting for any number of the domestic dramas that still dominate the mainstream American stage. Everything is white and modern: the couch, the dining table, the place settings for six, the white-on-white paintings on the upstage wall, flanking its two doors. Only the tall flowers in a crystal vase splash a little primary color into the space.
Of course, this decorous home is just waiting to be trashed, but not in the conventional metaphoric manner of the standard dysfunctional family play. Rather, it will soon be the site of regicide, mass executions, and torture; battles in Ukraine; and a cave in Lithuania—during a snowstorm. Last month, director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod, joint artistic directors of the London-based company Cheek by Jowl, shrewdly staged Alfred Jarry’s 1896 brutal burlesque Ubu Roi at this year’s Lincoln Center Festival in New York City as the fevered Oedipal fantasy of a bourgeois adolescent. The fellow, that is, who, though not listed among Jarry’s characters, is nevertheless curled up on the chalky colored couch. His parents are preparing for a dinner party as he sulks and plays around with a camcorder. Abruptly, crass, ruthless Ubu intrudes. The parents assume the roles of Mère and Père Ubu, who kill their king, usurp the throne, and pillage their way across a continent. The boy takes up the part of the king’s vengeful son, and the three dinner guests those of all of the Ubus’ collaborators, rivals, and victims.
The conceit makes good historical and theatrical sense. Jarry’s inspiration for Ubu Roi was a juvenile prank: boys in his high school made fun of a fat, pompous teacher, Mr. Hébert, by featuring him as Père Ebé, the protagonist of satirical sketches; the 15-year-old Jarry adapted one into a marionette show. Later, at age 23, Jarry adjusted the vowels in the character’s name and elaborated the plot to create Ubu Roi, without bowdlerizing the puerile potty jokes or the flailing attacks on authority. Jarry even set up the two-night run of the play at Paris’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre (the first really just an invited dress rehearsal) to erupt into a scandal. The apocryphal story, long taught in modern drama classes, describes an uptight, upscale audience beginning to stomp and boo after the very first word of the play was uttered by Père Ubu: “Merdre!” which is translated in the Cheek by Jowl version (in supertitles—the production is performed in French by a compact company of six actors) as “Shitka!”
As it happens, Jarry had recruited his drinking buddies to stir up squabbles during the performance, but the work has come down to us as the epitome of épater la bourgeoisie. Some scholars have gone so far as to say Jarry founded avant-garde theater (though he was following, if not in lockstep, Symbolist dramas that had already played at the same theater).
Ubu is not a very good play, but it is an important one—oxymoronically, an avant-garde classic—and typically understood as hurling a savage critique at the lust for power and the mayhem it produces. “Isn’t injustice just as good as justice?” Père Ubu says as he seeks to gratify his every urge. Thus, for more than a century, it has often served as a template for topical takes on local tyrannies. The play was among the works shoved out of the Czech repertoire after the Soviet invasion of 1968.
Generally regarded as a radical work, Ubu Roi was first professionally produced in the United States in 1952, by the Living Theatre in New York’s Greenwich Village, and it was the first work performed by the Surveillance Camera Players in 1996, in front of a surveillance camera in the Union Square subway station. As if on cue, both productions were shut down by authorities. (The New York City Fire Department stopped the Living Theatre’s performance for violations; cops told the SCP to move along before they finished the play). The great South African artist William Kentridge directed an adaptation by Jane Taylor for the Handspring Puppet Company in 1997—Ubu and the Truth Commission—portraying Ubu as an apartheid-era policeman trying to hide his complicity in torture and murder. In 2013, I saw a raucous, abstracted, four-actor version in Budapest by Hungary’s Maladype Theatre, highlighting the vulgarity and turmoil that a regime of absolute power unleashes. Poland’s Piotr Szulkin directed a film version depicting local chaos right after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Cheek by Jowl takes a different tack. If only because so many of today’s tyrants are already parodies of themselves and the bourgeoisie is long past being meaningfully shocked in the theater (especially at up to $85 a pop for orchestra seats in the Lincoln Center Festival), their approach is both refreshing and revelatory. By presenting Ubu’s murderous shenanigans from the teenager’s point of view, they have given us license to laugh at the abundant fart jokes and pratfalls and have also opened up a reading that shows the agony of a youngster being dragged away from the unfiltered desires and tempers of childhood into the colorless realm of adulthood (the costume palette is all beiges and grays). It’s that old discontent wrought by civilization. Meanwhile, the production takes violent aim at theatrical realism, too, just as Jarry did. The merry vandalizing of the set—Père Ubu’s battle plan squirted onto the wall with ketchup, the couch overturned, debris strewn everywhere—is just one salvo against theatrical conventions.
The young man (a gorgeously glowering Sylvain Levitte) stands in for the author himself, conducting Ubu Roi’s action, at times waving his arms like a puppeteer. Indeed, drawing from the original marionette student show and sustaining the blithe Guignol gruesomeness of the form, Jarry insisted that actors wear masks and that the actors function like “man-sized marionettes.”
When the action shifts suddenly from the sophisticated soiree to the raging and rampaging of the Ubus, the actors change bodily: Their movements become jerky and angular, like the little jolting motions of actors in early silent movies. Père (Christophe Grégoire) and Mère (Camille Cayol) become downright bestial in hilarious sexual capers, their pelvises twitching, knees knocking, and saliva pooling. When they instantaneously shift back to the framing world of the dinner party, they become contained and graceful again. At one point, mid-battle, Mom sails through the kitchen door and asks sunnily, “Anyone allergic to pine nuts? I’m putting some in the salad.” A change in the lights and a swell of music (Verdi, Wagner, Russian marches) catapult everyone back into the maelstrom.
As the actors’ physicality changes, so do their once-innocent household objects. The coveted crown is a lampshade; Père’s battle helmet, a colander. A hand broom, a spatula, a toilet brush, and a spray bottle become fearsome weapons. Père Ubu purees the brains of the king with a handheld blender; he does away with the nobles, judges, and financiers by taking them, in turn, through the kitchen door. Screams and the whirring of a food processor blare from offstage, and he returns alone, apron splattered red. Later (in one of many Shakespeare allusions), he giddily uses a spoon to scoop out a fellow conspirator’s eye.
We have seen these items before: In a nearly silent, 10-minute prologue that hints at the slapstick and sadism soon to spill out of the sedate surroundings, the boy explores his home with his video camera and his findings are projected onto the upstage wall. He pans around the room, then exits into the kitchen. The footage continues, revealing the private, behind-the-scenes realm with its signs of sex and savagery: The camera zooms in on a bloody hunk of meat and what looks like its gelatinous eye, a hair on the bed sheets, a stain on the toilet, a white fur coat. Even the dicing of tomatoes looks and sounds sinister.
It’s not just his adolescent fury that produces the chilling ending: He calmly picks off each adult with a handgun to close his Ubu fantasy before sitting down to join them for the cheese course. It’s the violence on which such comfortable lives are built, as plain—and silent—as the slab of lamb on their plates.