However, Jarry persisted with the central character of Ubu and the play opened on stage in Paris in 1896, with a riot breaking out in the theatre upon the opening words from the lead character. The audience was eventually calmed, only for chaos to erupt again shortly after, so shocking and vulgar was the content to the sophisticated French audience. The play polarised critics, and theatre of the absurd was born.
Naturally, more than a hundred years later contemporary audiences are made of more robust stuff. The play now presents itself as more of a curiosity than something to be shocked about and is presented by various theatre groups in a variety of settings. Which is not to say that this theatre goer and his plus one, The Dreaded One, didn't approach this performance with some trepidation. Just how absurd is absurd? Would it make any sense at all? And in this case, there is mud... lots of mud.
Chatting briefly with director Jason Cavanagh before the show, we joked that given that we frequent multi-day dance festivals in the bush, we are not afraid of a bit of mud. “Yes,” he replied, “it reminds me of Confest.” Precisely. He also asked casually if we'd be sitting in the front row. Erm... no.
Not that there was anything to worry about, mud-wise; protective sheets were supplied to the front row and clear shower curtains were drawn whenever a battle scene erupted, flashing swords replaced with mud balls. As the actors became more covered in mud, it actually looked like an awful lot of fun.
The story feels very Shakespearean and indeed is given something of the Shakespearean treatment by this cast of very fine, if muddied, actors. The script doesn't quite have the finesse and the poetry of Shakespeare, but you do recognise a bit of Macbeth in the motivations and actions of the characters. Largely at the urging of his wife, Mama Ubu, Papa Ubu hatches a plot to kill the king of Poland and install himself of that country's ruler. Why Poland? It would appear that Poland wasn't on the map in 1896, so Ubu was effectively taking over and ruling a non-existent place. Absurd, no?
Co-conspirator Captain Bordure's men are killed after being offered food which looks a lot like shit on a toilet brush. The mission is successful, Ubu acquires great wealth by simply killing all the noblemen and taking their money, and much double-crossing, treachery, plotting and fighting ensues. The language is as infantile as the motivations of Ubu, a huge, lumbering man-child driven largely by his animal needs.
In creating Ubu, Jarry was having a go not just at the ruling elite (though he was definitely doing this) but also the common man. Ubu started out being a parody of a loathed teacher, but in reworking and reworking the character over the years of his short life (he died at 34 after complications from his various addictions, not the least of which was absinthe), he was also attacking modern man and society generally. Given the antics of Australia's current gaggle of politicians – Rudd comes to mind with his earwax-eating and his juvenile look-at-me-I'm-just-a-regular-schmuck tweets – Ubu Roi still feels relevant. Especially given the apparent lack of ideology in politics today; our political leaders seem more driven by their desire for fame than anything.
If I went into this production from 5pound Theatre with trepidation, The Dreaded One did more so. Given it's absurdist reputation, she wasn't sure if she was going to enjoy it at all. I was relieved to hear her laughing throughout and tell me afterwards that she thoroughly enjoyed it. I think she was a little relieved at just how much she liked it.
Nicholas Dubberley was superb as the grotesque Ubu, as was Amy Jones as Ubu's ruthless wife and Andi Snelling as Captain Bordure. In fact the whole cast, playing multiple roles, was pretty damn good. Although occasionally played for laughs, overall the text appeared to be taken quite seriously, which is often the best delivery for humour. Lighting and set-design enhanced the whole experience to make it something quite unique; strangely thrilling, weirdly compelling.
5pound Theatre continues to do interesting things at The Owl & Pussycat. It really is worth checking out this little mud-fest, the piece of theatrical history that is Ubu Roi.
5pound Theatre presents
by Alfred Jarry
Director Jason Cavanagh
Venue: The Owl and the Pussycat | 34 Swan Street Richmond VIC
Dates: July 17 – 27, 2013
Tickets: $25 – $20