Cheek by Jowl remove excess fat from aburdist Ubu

Ubu Roi – Cheek by Jowl @ Barbican, until 20 April 2013

It is easy to imagine that many directors view Jarry’s Ubu Roi as the poisoned chalice of theatre. It is a play whose own history has overwhelmed any value the original content may have had. A play that managed to start a riot after just one word of dialogue had been spoken. A play that managed to get itself outlawed from the stage after just one performance. How can a play with that much power ever be resisted for long?

However power relies on content and context, and even directors blinded by its potential must realise that theatre audiences of the 21st century are not going to tear up the stalls upon the utterance of a single swearword. So the question always remains over how to make Ubu relevant whilst maintaining its sense of absurdity; this must be the prerequisite of any company attempting to refresh the play.

So then we must be glad that it is Cheek by Jowl who are the latest in a long line of companies to have picked up the gauntlet, as it is questionable whether there are more potent re-interpreters working in theatre today than the formidable pairing of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod.Ubu Split -Christophe Gregoire Photo -Johan Persson

Over the last few years they have put their unique design and directorial decisions to plays as unfashionable as Troilus and Cressida and Racine’s Andromaque. They have also delivered stylish but substantial productions of The Tempest, Macbeth and Tis Pity She’s A Whore. Most impressively of all, this has been achieved whilst working across three languages, using British, French or Russian almost on a whim.

One of the joys of a new Cheek by Jowl production is the anticipation of what you are going to get. Each new play feels unique in itself but also contains an essence that is instantly recognisable as Cheek by Jowl; there is a coherence and balance in the interplay between design and direction, style and function, which means that each individual element has a purpose and a decision that runs through and underpins the unifying themes. This ability is particularly noticeable in Ubu Roi where the need to produce unnaturally large characters means that there is a constant tension that they could overwhelm the play as a whole.

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A valuable lesson about forbidden love

‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore – Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican, until 10 March

‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore does not make itself the easiest of plays to love; even given the general sense of impending and unbending doom and attendant cast of flawed humanity that appears as a hallmark of Jacobean tragedies, John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity… is unsentimental, hard as flint and packed full of characters that do not exactly strain to gain the audiences sympathy.

It is difficult to imagine what was made of it in the 17th Century but its tale of intrigue, incest, and murder is one that retains a genuinely shocking impact two centuries later, whereas other plays, such as The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi or The Changeling struggle to escape the period detail of their plots.

The effectiveness of the impact may have much to do with the key subject matter of ‘Tis Pity. Whereas the actions of characters may appear a little antiquated to a modern audience – suicide and a bloodbath in the course of avenging another seems a little outré these days – incest remains one of the last remaining taboo areas. One needs only watch the end of Polanski’s neo-noir masterpiece Chinatown to see that it retains a visceral power. It maintains a mysterious otherness by sitting so far outside an audience’s range of experience.

Few plays tackle the subject openly; the inexorable slide through its beginnings into initiation and onwards onto final devastation is laid out in front of the audience in an astonishingly frank manner with surprisingly little of the expected moral criticism. Ford’s play wrong-foots the spectator at almost every turn leaving the audience fully engaged in the spectacle despite an awareness that the conventions of drama practically dictate the inevitable conclusion.

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The Week Ahead

Well after a month out from the blog – mainly spent drinking cocktails and eating wonderful food in Malaysia investigating the diverse cultural scene and eating wonderful food in Malaysia – its time to cast an eye over the weeks ahead. I had a chance to see Cheek by Jowl’s latest production at the Barbican last week, the enjoyably gory Tis Pity She’s a Whore and staged with the inventiveness that comes as standard with a CbyJ production. A review will be up later in the week.

Next week I will be trotting along with the rest of London’s hipsters too see Zach Braff’s first foray into stage plays, All New People. After receiving broadly positive if not ecstatic reviews in America, it has now crossed the pond and looks to be a reliably enjoyable if rather predictable evening.

Also worth pointing out the National Theatre Live series continues with A Comedy of Errors, which will be airing at cinema’s round the country on 01 March. Lenny Henry got very positive reviews on his latest return to the stage and whilst it is not the same experience as watching live, it is a commendable project to bring the theatre to those who do not have the time, money or ability to venture to London at the drop of a hat.