Richard and I saw *Ubu the King* (*Ubu Roi*) at Lincoln Center Festival on 7/26. It was a production by Cheek By Jowl, an English theatre company, using French actors. The play is by Albert Jarry, it was written in 1898 and is seen as the birth of French absurdism. How could we pass it up?
The scene opened in an elegant, all-white French apartment - - very chic, very high style. A young man was on the couch, filming himself, the film projected onto the wall. He walked through the door to the kitchen, offstage. He filmed his father making dinner, chopping tomatoes and smooshing them up in his hand. A close-up of the father's face, zooming into one of his nostrils, showing a big glistening booger. The audience chuckled, it was a charming moment, not at all gratuitous or gross. I knew we were in for something special.
The young man came back onstage, no longer filming, and his parents came out, too. Every one in a while the lights turned green and loud, raucous music came on, and the parents would jitter about maniacally. Just as suddenly the lights turned normal, the music went off, and the parents were back doing their usual thing. Three friends arrived, and they had a dinner party. The young man stayed on the couch, the five adults chattered with each other quietly. Murmured. You couldn't hear what they were saying.
The parents eventually became Father Ubu and Mother Ubu, Polish aristocrats with an eye on the throne. Very *Macbeth* with a dash of *Oedipus*. The other three adults played various roles in the drama, the young man as well. It was zany, madcap, very funny. The action alternated between the dinner party and the Ubu saga, gradually settling more or less full time with the Ubus. The apex of the show - - some wild wacky business was going on between Father Ubu and the three adults. Mother Ubu opened the door from the kitchen, everyone froze. She said, "Is anyone allergic to pine nuts? I'm putting them in the salad." She shut the door and the action went back to the wackiness.
After about an hour I wondered if the tone would turn dark, and right on cue, it did. Father Ubu was in power, and decided to kill all the nobles, all the financiers, all of the priests. Then he turned his eye to Russia. The front door opened and snow blew in, and the *1812 Overture* blaring. Then my favorite moment in the staging: the three adults were trudging through the mountains (snow projected onto the wall), and the woman walked sideways, holding up her chiffon skirt and fluttering it against the "wind". Hilarious.
There are three things that have become a little too pervasive onstage lately, all three of them can seem a rather cheap way of creating interest onstage. Like rattling a ring of keys in front of a baby. I will list them with the most flagrant offenders.
Using music as an underscore, as you would in a film (*Wolf Hall*, *The Audience*). Making a mess onstage (*The Maids*). Video projections (so many recent Met productions: *Faust*, *Prince Igor*, *Iolanta / Bluebeard's Castle*, *Werther*). *Ubu the King* used these three elements quite a lot, but in this case they WORKED. They supported the anarchy of the play, they weren't just giving the audience flash and dazzle.
One funny moment of translation I want to mention: Father Ubu and Mother Ubu ended up reuniting in a cave in the Russian mountains (I guess I should have given a spoiler alert, my apologies). He told her his tale - - at one point he was chased by a mob, and the translation said, "I thought they were going to eat me alive!" But the actor actually said, "I thought they were going to make me into cassoulet!" I guess I understand why they altered the translation, but why pass up the uniquely French flavor of a cassoulet?