Ubu by Alfred Jarry, in a new version by Tom Wright and Michael Kantor. Company B Belvoir & Mene Mene for the Melbourne Festival. Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 27. Then Belvoir Street.
“One can take a play and make it a trampoline. I see no need for making a trampoline out of Ubu.” (Peter Brook, Milan 1979)
You’re at the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre in Paris for the premiere of Ubu Roi, by a 23 year-old writer named Alfred Jarry. It’s December 1896. The lead actor, Firmin Gémier, walks to the front of stage, glares at you and swears: “Merdre!” That’s ‘merde’ with an extra rolling kick. (Think of an aggravated Betty Blue giving it a second syllable, with a twist.) One translator admiringly refers to the “labial overtones” of Jarry’s coined word; another gleefully translates it as “piss-shit”. And that’s just the first in a grotesque string of obscenities and scatological gags.
Ubu Roi caused outrage, closing after just two performances, but it was regarded in its day more as a juvenile prank than something shockingly new. (The Rabelaisian play was, in fact, conceived eight years earlier by a trio of spotty teenage boys wanting to take the proverbial piss-shit out of their Physics Master.)
Ubu Roi is the play that presaged Theatre of Cruelty (Artaud’s founded the Théâtre Alfred Jarry twenty years after Jarry’s death) and anticipated theatre of the absurd by half a century. Without Ubu, there could be no Godot or balding sopranos.
Ubu Roi is a great play, and still has much to say to us, a century later. But bugger Peter Brook; Ubu has to be made into a trampoline. The great anti-hero Pere Ubu (“Pa Ubu” for this production) is like a venal, stupid, grotesque Macbeth, persuaded to kill the reigning monarch by his wife.
While the play would be read as an attack on the bourgeoisie virtually anywhere else in the world, Pa seems pretty unexceptionable to audiences in Oceania: a monomaniacal and upwardly mobile mix of republican politician and grasping entrepreneur. Corporate opportunism meets coup d’état. What’s so bad about that?!
Since we no longer get any titillating kicks from saucy language, Tom Wright’s adaptation aims its black, satirical boot at our great nation’s even greater arse. Yes, initially at least, Pa and Ma are everyone we want to hate: from Alan and Eileen, through Piggery Paul, to John and Pauline... (That’s the Prime Miniature and his redheaded nemesis.)
But, remarkably, given the track record of Tom Wright and director Michael Kantor, this Ubu is more self-deprecating than self-flagellating. It’s a quite astonishingly good-natured romp.
Wright’s scintillating, potty-mouthed adaptation manages to look like a 21st century Legend of King O’Malley without ever straying from the plot or spirit of Jarry’s script. Wright stresses odd (or normally silent) syllables in homage to Jarry’s technique, he coins countless words and concatenates others. There is much internal rhyme (‘bumtrumpet’ is robustly typical) and some delicious malapropisms (regrettably “a parikeet of loyalty” is the only one I can recall), countless puns, word games and plays on the Ubu name, from “Ubu’s oboe” to ‘booboo’.
Kantor’s direction is similarly fluid and responsive and freewheeling. He exploits the amazing skills of his cast. Bille Brown (Pa) is the first among equals. Carole Skinner is his fishwife Ma. They’re ably supported by Jennifer Vuletic (tall and operatic) and Meaghan Davies (small and helium-sucking). Paul Blackwell, Arky Michael and Matthew Whittet complete the dream team.
In purely theatrical terms, this Ubu is a homage from the Kosky-styled new wave of theatrical intellectuals to the working-class Aussie anarchists who blazed the trail at the Pram Factory and Nimrod decades and decades ago. It’s a most unexpected and most ingenious reconciliation. And that’s what’s truly shocking about this production.
This review was published in the October 27-28 2001 edition of the Australian Financial Review.