Although Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi is a 19th century play it resonates as strongly with our present day as it did during its author’s lifetime. A story about the usurper with a child’s mind who is only concerned with his needs and capable of supreme brutality toward the people he rules is essentially a universal dark comic tale about any totalitarian regime. Ubu Roi is also a grotesque retelling of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: a couple of nobles Pere Ubu and his wife, Mere Ubu plan and then succeed in toppling King Wenceslas of Poland. However their cruel rule over Poles is soon followed by a revolt against them with the help of Russian Tsar who reinstates the rightful heir to the throne, Prince Bougrelas.
Donnellan’s production sparkles with witty dramaturgical ideas, sizzles with eroticism and teems with grotesque violence. It offers a virtuoso performance by the French ensemble cast that should be admired most of all for their incessant stage movement and great comic timing. And yet, somehow, the production lacks both emotional punch and a political bite.
Donnellan and Ormerod’s staging concept cleverly combines references to great European classics and international pop-culture ensuring broad appeal of their production. In their Ubu Roi, Luis Buñuel’sThe Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie meets American slasher movies. Most of the action takes place in a stylish living room with its characteristic monotone interior. Walls, carpets, furniture, lamps: everything is white. Before the play proper starts, in a 15-minute-long scene-cum-film sequence we meet a posh French couple and their son who ready themselves for a dinner party. We get to know them thanks to their teenage son who records all the preparations with his camera. Soon it is evident that underneath the veneer of opulence and elegance there is dirt and ugliness. Not to reveal too much, it will suffice to say that the subsequent dinner party turns into a spectacle of drunken violence.
The production is very entertaining, quick-paced and ingenious in its minimalistic approach to props. But it feels overall escapist and erudite rather than topical and affecting. I think that it is fair to demand more of one of the best British theatre companies, especially in the age of ongoing violent conflicts and civil wars around the world. In the final scene the teenage son joins meekly his parents and their guests at the table to enjoy a piece of brie. I wish Donnellan decided to end his show with the penultimate scene which breeches the fourth wall and is the only truly scary moment in their adaptation. It would have been a more fitting ending to a story which seemed more of a subtle family tragedy than a political exploration of totalitarian power.