Joyfully Grotesque, Scatological and Outrageous

UBU ROI by Alfred Jerry, presented by Squall + Frenzy, Steyning Centre, Steyning, 26th November, 8pm

Money is always trying to codify, commodify and control art. (There’s a documentary on the BBC about Christies, the auctioneers, at the moment, in which paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Francis Bacon go for something North of fifty million (dollars I guess) which is completely nuts by any measure. One buyer, whose very first purchase ever is a blue painting by Yves Klein, on which he ‘drops’ something like three million, is next shown being given the hard sell on a Monet (money!), now he’s a bona fide mark. (Not sure if the BBC is being satirical here.))

Underneath art’s acceptable, mainstream face runs a grotesque, facetious, anarchic vein, a kind of sewage system, ‘from remote antiquity to the present day’, in the words of George Sand, ‘which lays bare the spiritual poverty of mankind’. Or womenkind, in her case. Consider the three pillars of English cultural life: the Monarchy, Shakespeare and the Christmas pantomime, with panto being the ballast to stop the whole thing tumbling into the abyss, itself an evolution of the Italian improvisation comedy, Commedia dell’Arte, still with us (just) as Punch and Judy, circus clowns, tightrope walkers, comedians, etc, etc.; all have their counterparts in France, Moliere, Racine, the various Académies of arts and sciences, street performers, underpinning ‘value’ of different kinds.

Alfred Jarry and his school friends in provincial France a hundred odd years ago, tortured and tormented by Shakespeare, Sophocles, History, Physics, what-have-you, created a puppet play, as joyfully grotesque, scatological and outrageous as their imaginations could conceive. Jarry, in Paris to go to one of the École normale supérieure, persuaded a theatre company to present the play with live actors. The opening night (attended apparently by WB Yeats (who knew?) who commented: ‘after us, the savage god’, a suitably gnomic utterance) and ensuing riot have become theatrical myth, up there with gigs by Stravinsky and The Rolling Stones.

Ubu Roi, the first of the Ubu trilogy, has had a more influential effect on the development of visual art, specifically Dada and surrealism, rather than sparking a commensurate theatrical revolution. Jarry himself was drawn to puppets, wanting to have attached strings to the actors in that first production, and presenting the play again with the artist Pierre Bonnard in his Theatre des Pantins (puppet theatre).

All of this is by way of saying that this play has such an outsize reputation, that it has had, or is purported to have had, a seminal influence on such luminaries as Tristan Tzara, Marcel Duchamp, and, by way of Picasso, Man Ray and André Breton, the dreaded JM Basquiat himself, (and how can all those millions mislead?) that productions tend to have a kind of poe-faced seriousness, a sort of reverence, which undermines its purpose and intent. (I plead guilty myself, having done this play in an art gallery with sets by artists, all in Australia which doesn’t really have a theatrical tradition which could have made sense of such a radical, multifaceted piece of writing.)

Visual art and theatre interact with time in contrasting ways. Visual art can be about suggestion and allusion, layers of meaning which a viewer can meditate on for as long as they wish. A play is in the moment, moving unrelentingly onward. Great artists aren’t necessarily great set designers. Puppets and masks provide a way to bridge that gap. Similarly, theatrical transience can be overcome by repetition, familiarity, recurring characters, stories, themes, effects. Thus television sit-com, The Apprentice, cooking shows, dancing shows, etc. etc. Real Magic by Forced Entertainment, recently at Sussex University, explored the idea of repetition and familiarity to exhaustion.

That ensemble has been active for more than 30 years. This ensemble not so long, having presented a play a year for the last 3 or 4 years, but on this evidence, perhaps they too will be around and doing exciting things in the decades to come.

Because what they’ve done in this production is very interesting.

Without a hook, or fixed point for the audience, or the performers for that matter, to get their bearings, this play, like Duchamp’s Fountain or Carl Andre’s Bricks, can seem so obvious, so pathetically simple, as to be insulting.

The hook, the essential theatricality of this production, is that specifically English institution, the Pantomime, always the same, always slightly different, a melange of influences and styles, unashamedly popular, topical, anarchic, the radical establishment, a contradiction, a safety valve, a bit of fun. It’s end of the pier, Punch and Judy, marionettes, a bit of slap and tickle, jokes, satire, silly dancing and it always includes the Monarchy and Shakespeare one way or another. But most importantly it is of the people, humble, without any pretension, open and welcoming.

The actors, dressed in underwear like children getting ready for bed, somehow find the essential truth in this play, its genuine theatricality, not by breathless adherence to its reputation, but by a re-imagining of the way it was originally conceived, the costumes and style suggestive of puppets, of making use of whatever is to hand, of childish pranks, of the joy of going too far, of embarrassing any adults who may be within range.

The real kicker, the real sting in the tail, is that this approach turns the play into a satire on Pantomime, particularly apposite at this time of year, an attack on that comfortable theatrical tradition. Ubu Roi doesn’t subside into an historical artefact, a sort of objet d’art a gentleman might keep locked away in a secret drawer, but is a living piece of theatre, as relevant now as it was when it was first performed.

The commitment of the performers was very much appreciated, as was the warm welcome everyone received on arrival. The audience was transfixed and the total enjoyment apparent. This production was a very unexpected treat.

Paul Corcoran