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.
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.