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Ubu the King

Alfred Jarry in a new version by David Greig
Barbican Pit
(2005)

Gerry Mulgrew as Ubu. Photo by Ralph Nisbet

The latest play in Young Vic's Young Genius season, Ubu Roi, was the cause of riots when it was first seen in France in 1896. While times have changed, it still has the power to shock and offend over 100 years later.

Ubu the King is an anarchic comedy which is hard to categorise but falls somewhere between the Theatre of the Absurd and the Theatre of Excess.

This new version is determinedly Scots and for those that have not seen the play before, may well cause a little confusion, as much because of the strangeness of the original as of David Greig's updating.

Ubu the King (2005) is set in an old-age home, possibly in Dundee where director Dominic Hill runs the highly regarded Rep. The average resident is octogenarian and may well be gaga. Indeed, most of them make up the oddest Chorus imaginable, aged but enthusiastic, energetic and sexually voracious.

Dad Ubu is a madman who might nowadays be likened to a cross between Macbeth and Idi Amin. He is egged on by his overly ambitious and deeply unpleasant wife, Mum Ubu. This couple is played with real panache by the excellent pairing of Gerry Mulgrew, best known for his work with Communicado, and Ann Louise Ross.

The only other actor with a major part is Emun Elliott, fresh out of Drama School but doing a fine job as a young carer billeted to this madhouse and happy to humour the inmates.

In heightened language, Dad Ubu and his fearless wife become prey to overweening ambition and murder the King of Kazakhstan in order to add that Crown to Malawi which they apparently already hold.

While constantly attempting to double cross each other and everybody else, they then proceed to act as the very worst dictators always do, raising taxes, waging wars and having a whale of a time at the expense of their subjects.

Following mass slaughter, comically realised in lavatories behind closed doors, and pretty much every other kind of horror imaginable, they are eventually faced by Prince Buggeroff. He is the teenage son of the King whom they had slaughtered and, after a bizarre joust, the Ubus are put back in their places forever.

The real pleasure in Dominic Hill's production lies with his remarkable imagination and that of David Greig in transporting the mad world created by Alfred Jarry to a home for the elderly in Scotland today.

They let their surreal instincts have free rein in creating analogues to replace the action of the original with something appropriate to the setting. There are numerous examples such as the slaughter amongst the sanitary ware; armour consisting of a toilet seat and chamber pot; a wheelchair horse; and an enemy banana skinned alive!

The conclusion that one reaches is that all of the action has taken place in the head of a bearded old man who has been too long incarcerated in a down-at-heel institution. To be honest, this makes as much sense as an interpretation of this odd play as most others.

A visit to the Barbican Pit can be an uncomfortable experience for viewers, since your plucky reviewer was one of several members of the audience hit by flying objects, in his case a pea. A couple in the row behind were less fortunate, bagging a direct hit from a pile of something that purported to be ordure.

However those who are tempted to visit the Barbican, raincoats at the ready, have a treat in store. Even if they do not really know what is going on for much of the time, there is so much black humour and outrageous comedy of almost every type on show that all but the most narrow-minded must surely find something to laugh at.

This one really does have to be seen to be believed and those who do are likely to have strong feelings about it. Some may not get past pure disgust but others will be delighted with a ribald and scatological comedy that is really fresh and lively.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher