Ubu Roi - Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican, London

Ubu Roi | Cheek by Jowl

June, 2014 | Barbican Centre, London

Resident Company to the Barbican Centre, Cheek By Jowl, gain access to the main stage for this attempt at a difficult text from an absurd writer and credited pre-cursor to the surrealists. My companion, James Hodgson (abstract performance artist and under-the-radar critic), and I couldn’t agree on this production: I thought it was a wasted opportunity to bring a founding text of scandalous theatre to a mainstream audience and it was a miserable failure; he thought it was an absolute disgrace.

The character of Pére Ubu was created by school children aiming to lampoon their teacher as a general figure of authority and bourgeois sensibilities. Subsequently three plays (by the now slightly older and drug abusing Jarry) were written, but Ubu Roi [King Turd] was the only piece performed. As the Theatre programme announced, the show was deliberately antagonistic and designed to be scandalous. Jarry allegedly collected bad reviews and rebuffed positive ones, writing letters of thanks to the critics that despised his work. Ironically Cheek by Jowl’s (un-modest £4) programme is overflowing with positive reviews and self-congratulations.

Furthermore, what is designed to be a howling critique of bourgeois society became an extremely tame piece of clean theatre for a £30 a ticket mainstream stage like the Barbican. While hosting LIFT shows like The Shipment, Testament (German group She She Pop) and Dmitry Krymov Lab, Cheek by Jowl remain a totally conventional and unchallenging programming choice.

A clear issue was the treatment of the two worlds in the play, between the bourgeois dinner and the violent imagination of Ubu’s teenage son (which at least slightly covers the whole teenage element in its origin.) Beginning with the son initiating the switch, which works to illustrate a certain angle of savagery in retaliation to his parents’ canoodling before guests arrive, this structure falls apart later when seemingly anything can cause this turn, such as a cue from a light state change. This show was not for the audience in Jarry’s sense; it was just another Cheek by Jowl audience. We were annoyed, not because it was controversial, but because it was conceptually misconceived… [oh, James is taking my laptop to rant:]

  • It was supposed to be controversial, but it was one of the safest shows I’ve seen recently (except when the young amateur threw a cushion onto a stage light, because of the inaccuracy of the direction/plotting).
  • Why would you create a structure, and then completely disregard it after the first episode (unless the director forgot)
  • For God’s sake, if you are going to use surtitles at the Barbican, have the decency to proofread them.
    The set was an absolute waste of money. I think they intended it to compensate for the acting/direction’s inability to provide context. Unfortunately, the disregard for and misuse of the settings and props meant that this context was fragmented at best. Case in point: at the beginning, when they are trying to act ‘perfect’ in front of their guests (before they throw food around) whilst they manage to straighten up all the pictures and cutlery, they failed to notice the Ma Ubu had flung her shawl in a heap on the floor. Furthermore, the cushion on the floor light breaks the illusion indefinitely while threatening to burn us all.
  • For some reason, a live feed on stage was introduced, consisting a yawnful opening sequence trailing through a house presumably behind the visible set on stage. I hope to god Cheek By Jowl didn’t waste their money on building this set, and it was rather pre-recorded. It was used once. This device was then forgotten about (much like the structure/framing device I discussed earlier) and brought back in the final scene. I fail, however to see the intention and purpose of it; perhaps something about multimedia is written into their Arts Council funding conditions?
  • The overall structure of the piece was… actually it’s not worth wasting my breath…
    The entrance of the Russians was marked (and subsequently a reused device, kudos for the first consistency in the piece) by a weird projection of snow, and a snow machine, and a Russian mink fur hat. Racist/Climatist?
    The Mint Card advert nose made an appearance.
  • It felt a little bit like watching an incompetent cast of Allo! Allo! The three ‘chorus’ actors, playing multiple roles revelled in hamming up every conceivable moment. Unfortunately I didn’t share this revelry, unlike some of our overenthusiastic audience counterparts (I can only assume they were a panto-going audience).
  • Don’t paint lines on the walls with ketchup if it’s going to look crap; Miro would be turning in his grave. So would Jarry as a matter of fact. (Miro was inspired enough to put Ubu in his own play.)
    It was a disgrace, and frankly the creators need to go away and seriously think about what the direction this and other Cheek by Jowl productions are taking; I get the impression they believe they are still ‘cutting edge’ and addressing current socio-/economic/political trends. They are not.
  • What angers more than any of this, however, is that Cheek by Jowl have absolutely no excuse for the lack of skill and level of execution presented. As a very simple example of this, two performers are required to perform a ‘waltz’ at one point in the performance. It would have taken relatively little, both in terms of time and expense to train these two performers in learning a very simple, yet precise and elegant waltz. Instead, someone clearly had a go at playing choreographer, meaning this moment which could have at least been aesthetically pleasing was clunky, clumsy, and totally meaningless. Inaccuracies were littered throughout the whole performance. In my opinion, that is unacceptable for a company as established as this.
  • I feel I’ve been done a great injustice, missing one piece of French brilliance in the World Cup in place of this; a travesty of French language drama… Sacrebleu!

Panned as subversive theatre aimed to trick gullible audiences with metaphorical crap, Cheek by Jowl instead succeed in tricking gullible audiences that this crap is metaphorical and subversive. One has to wonder whether the play, despite its fantastic text, was meant to be performed commercially because it’s entirely anti-theatrical. Like Duchamp’s Fountain, some art is designed to break conventions and in that respect becomes valued artistically against its real worth. This show has taken that and toured without apparently grasping that its significance to art outweighs the necessity to perform it while inexcusably executing it badly.

To conclude on our earlier disagreement I have discovered a suitable compromise, it’s a miserable failure AND a bloody disgrace! So that’s what we saw. ‘Tis Pity ‘bout the score: Ripped-Off Audience 1-0 Culture

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