When Ubu Roi premiered in France in 1896 they didn’t get past the first word – ‘‘Merdre!’’ (often translated as ‘‘Shitter!’’) – before people started rioting… after managing to calm down the audience enough to continue with the show, they got a further few words in before it started all over again.
The plays of Alfred Jarry are considered by many to be the first dramatic works of the theatre of the absurd. Ubu Roi (translated as King Ubu and King Turd) is Jarry’s most famous work and is loosely based on the story of Macbeth. The play offers us a world devoid of morality, honor, sympathy, class, decency and all other characteristics of a civilized society. What we are left with is a dystopian yet all to familiar view of the world in which we live. In fact, Ubu Roi eliminates the dramatic action from its Shakespearean antecedents and uses scatological humor and farce to present Jarry’s views on art, literature, politics, the ruling classes, and current events.
5pound theatre director Jason Cavanaugh embraces the filth by staging the whole show in a pit of mud. Six Brave actors, in their most grotesque finery, will take to the mud to create the explosive hilarity that is 5pound theatres vision of Ubu Roi.
So what is that binds director Cavanagh and his six actors to this controversial piece of theatrical history that left its opening night audiences stunned and was, on that contentious night, described as an affront to theatrical realism and naught more than a gigantic hoax?
Cavanagh and his six brave actors share and discuss their love of all things absurd, grotesque, puerile and infantile – in fact, all things Ubu:
Jason Cavanagh: I was enthralled by this play from the moment I heard about it. It is the precursor and arguable inspiration to some of my most personally influential artistic movements and to get the opportunity to explore that is something quite special. Upon reading it I was immediately struck with the idea of staging it in a big pit of mud… I henceforth shared this idea with people and wasn’t met with the derision I was anticipating. In fact one persons response was, ‘yeah… that makes sense’. Only in the world of Ubu does that actually ‘make sense’.
Of course the trick is to manage the messiness of the mud by drawing out the precision of the text and getting to the truth of these characters. We have approached it as unusual characters living in a real world- so they may talk and act strangely but they are fully submerged in their own reality… I really wanted to avoid making this farcical or even (god forbid!) trash theatre. There is a real temptation here to ‘play for laughs’ but I just don’t think that does justice to the text… it misses the inherent tragedy of it (and weirdly some of the funnier moments which inevitably come from truth).
It’s been a leap of faith for me – a boundless script, which I think requires you to reach for the extremities, whilst maintaining a firm grip on the heart- what greater challenge/opportunity could you hope for? We’ll see how we go I guess…
Anthony Okill: One of the biggest challenges I have faced with this play is the wide array of characters involved. With such a small cast, tackling a play with so many different parts is always going to be difficult, but I think the complexity and the interweaving of all those elements is something that really attracts me to it. The manic changes that are required, swapping from one character to the next in a heartbeat, and the mercurial nature of certain characters is something that, although a challenge, holds potential great rewards. This is really accentuated by the grotesque, visceral nature of all the characters, which really allows us to throw ourselves headlong into the piece.
Colin Craig: The First time I saw Ubu Roi on the stage it changed the way I thought about what theatre could be. The actors just seemed to be running around and playing games with each other in a big playground. It informed a lot of how I go about making theatre these days. When Jason told me the concept for this production I almost begged him to let me be a part of it. The combination of Jarry's script and Jason's ideas pulled me in like quicksand.
The challenge of this play, other than the physical strain and energy that's required, is bringing the harsh reality in to what is quite a heightened and surreal script. At the core of the filthy language is quite a harrowing and sad picture of a society being devoured. That tragedy can only be conveyed if the pain and loss is evident in the on-stage victims.
Susannah Frith: I was attracted by the absolute grotesque nature of this play. Papa Ubu, as a representation of human nature is pure greed, self-preservation, and excess. It's exciting and rewarding to see a character that is completely unapologetic.
The challenge for me is engaging in a truthful performance and giving depth to my characters within a play where characters can so easily be performed as caricature.
Amy Jones: Ubu for me is a hyperbolised, grotesque representation of the corruption which, to me seems innately married to power, or authority. Power corrupts. And the ambition for money or power, as we have indeed seen in the recent political exploits of this country's leadership battles, can be a dirty game. It's important to me, that in a healthy democracy we question our leaders and their motivations and that is why Ubu Roi is important to me.
In reference to the Theatre of Cruelty, Antonin Artaud spoke of cruelty not in a violent way, but rather the cruelty it takes for actors to show an audience a truth that they do not wish to see. My challenge with this project has been to find an honest way to present these grotesque truths about greed and power through the character of Mamma Ubu. Its a juicy task and one that will continue to develop, I'm sure, right up until closing night!
Andi Snelling: What attracted me to the play was that I had studied it as a text, in the context of theatre history many moons ago at Uni and loved it right from the first "Merdre!" So the chance to actually perform it was just too good to turn up. The other main attraction was the very thing which now scares me the most about this production – the mud factor! I think the greatest challenge in this play is to take each line seriously enough to remain truthfully connected to what I'm saying, whilst also taking it not so seriously enough that I can remain playful and enjoy the grotesque whims of the piece. But really, it's all about the mud.
Nicholas Dubberley: Firstly, if we say that the world of UBU ROI is like that of Macbeth but without honour or morality it becomes a play about acting upon primal instincts and urges, without the normal filter of adult reason. The challenging thing about playing UBU in this world is as the colour created by that layer of adult reason is no more, the shifts in emotions are very quick and extremely heightened. I don't know about you but getting that right and from a truthful place is a lot more challenging than playing Macbeth, and is definitely something I haven't done before.
Secondly, I studied the play during my Drama Course at Uni. I couldn't really access it and found the translation we used quite antiquated and boring. Something that may have been shocking over a century earlier but passé now. But a few years ago I was offered the part ( which I turned down) and then this year Jason called me and offered it to me again so I thought "Why the hell not!?". And I'm glad that I did, as there is a lot more to this play, like its resonances with the current state of politics in our country, than first occurred to me over 10 years ago.
Ubu Roi Wednesday 17th July –Saturday 27th July.
The Owl and the Pussycat. 34 Swan Street Richmond. (Opposite Richmond Station)