Tuesday 15 July 2014

Ubu Roi – Escola D. António Da Costa

[seen 15/07/14]

Harry Potter and the Bourgeois Parents of Death
-- photo (untouched by me) by Johan Persson

Obviously I’m miles behind on this one. Seen at Warwick Arts Centre in January ‘13, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s Cheek by Jowl production of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi has been round the block a few times now.

I have to confess, I’d been deliberately sitting Cheek by Jowl productions out for a few years after their frankly godawful 2008 Troilus and Cressida (“Shakespeare is robust enough to withstand a few dim design ideas. What the play cannot take is virtually inaudible dialogue and characters who display no sign that anything that they are doing matters to them in the slightest”), but I was already tempted by this, even before I knew the cast was French (a plus, in my view).

The day before I saw it, I did happen to catch Donnellan being interviewed at the Festival Club, however (open air, miked, amplified, not much option to miss it if you wanted to eat), and several things he said I found quite arresting: “I am bourgeois and I have no problem with that” was one, “Jarry said he wrote this about a teacher, but if you look at the names... I think it’s about his parents”, “Nick and I were staying at this very expensive apartment in Paris which had loads of signs everywhere saying what you couldn’t touch and etc.” (you get that I’m paraphrasing, right?), and “I find it fascinating [or was it frightening?] how fast ‘civilisation’ can fall apart [– although the first example he then gave was of the extremely wealthy side of his family losing it’s money. I can’t remember if it was him who mentioned the Polish villages who ‘only had to hear the Nazis were coming to start murdering all their Jews’ or if that was something else.]”

I had a quick flick through the Brit reviews this morning – I was curious, because my impression had been overwhelming positivity, but Love in Exeunt only three-starred it. Anyway, Michael Billington’s review does precisely what the production wants: he spots precisely what it’s doing, and then broadly agrees with every decision made. And he astutely pins down the added element of Oedipal desire (interesting, since it’s *British* translations which usually opt for “Ubu Rex”), which seems both central and extraneous here. [Aha! It was Hutton who called it “masterful”.]

This is very much a production of two halves (running concurrently, vertically); on one hand there’s the undeniable verve and style in the realisation of the piece. In this it is nigh-on flawless (last night’s technical hitch notwithstanding – starting a 1hr50 show with a start time of 22.00 twenty minutes late didn’t endear it to me at the time, or aid my concentration much). On the other hand, I did have some big questions about the overall concept.

My main point of comparison was Simon Stephens and Katie Mitchell’s The Trial of Ubu at the Hampstead in 2012. Granted that is, to all intents and purposes – apart from the first 20 minutes – a different play. But there’s something about the intent that maps onto this production: Donnellan’s production takes Jarry’s text and plays the playwright behind it rather than the world now. As such, in a strange way it feels like a psychoanalytic telling-off of the playwright.

Donnellan’s concept is to play Ubu Roi as the fantasies of a bourgeois teenager (as Jarry was when he wrote the play). He and his parents inhabit an elegant Parisian flat, and he wanders around with his (live-feed-projected onto the back wall) video camera, almost stalking them as if in Psycho. As the parents assemble three of their friends for a dinner party, the boy’s imagination of them as figures in Jarry’s text takes over. Mostly under green lights, so that we – the audience – can readily grasp WTF is going on. This has two possible effects: one is that we “see the violence lurking inside/under-the-surface-of society”; the other is that everything in the play is reduced to the violent fantasies of a teenager.

Of course, particularly in the wake of the Elliot Rodger murders, the violent revenge fantasies of the spoiled, privileged, bourgeois teenager are not to be taken lightly. And the coda here of the family and their guests being gunned down by a teenager (whose mind’s eye, replete with video-game targets super-imposed over family members, is shown projected), seems to confirm this.

On the other hand, virtually *everything else* about this concept takes the violence, tyranny, and madness in the play that so eloquently describes the century leading up to 1896, and even more graphically anticipates the century that lay ahead of it, and reduces it to a comic charade. It’s ironic that Mitchell managed to evoke more pity with the suggestion of some simple puppets being fed into a wood-chipper than Donnellan does with several on-stage or on-screen/back-stage/live-feed murders. Where Stephens gave us a dictator who evoked Milosevic, Hussein, or Karimov, Donnellan gives us someone bad-mouthing their dad.

Ultimately, though, it’s a matter of taste. This production is absolutely first-rate in terms of realising its ideas, and it would be completely churlish not to acknowledge the virtuosity there. And indeed, that it’s a fine concept, and one which completely holds the attention throughout. I guess for me, it was just a matter of importance: by turning the piece inward rather than outward Donnellan’s dramaturgical conception runs the risk of being as pleased-with-itself and bourgeois as the apartment and teenage fantasies that it’s critiquing.

No comments: