There’s a huge amount to enjoy in this high energy and very funny adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi.
We learn early in the piece that Ma Ubu is dissatisfied with Pa Ubu’s station in life. Pa Ubu, however, dreams of seeing out his days eating party wieners and eschewing exertion. After all, life could be worse.
Prime Minister Fuller Bjullschitt spies a political opportunity in the strangely popular anti-heroic Ubu, and hatches a regicidal plot along with accomplices ‘Miss Information’ and ‘Dr. M. Faseema’.
By now you are getting a sense of things.
Of course, King Dumc’nt does not wish to go gently to the eternal kingdom, and having identified the mysterious power accruing around Ubu, runs a counter ploy with Queen Lizardbreath and ‘Prince Bitchard’, AKA Bitchie.
Writer and director Richard Hilliar notes that rather than dealing with the financial chaos depicted in Jarry’s original Ubu Roi, his production sets out to examine the kinds of clandestine political machinations that have left the world poised at the edge of environmental catastrophe.
Hilliar also wants to ensure the comedy lands with modern audiences, and so he uses the original “as a springboard for a whole new adaptation”.
As U.B.U.’s ribald and scatological frenzy reaches its climax, the best among the characters exhort the audience to do more: if we know the environment is in crisis, why aren’t we taking days off work to protest, or reducing the amount of meat we consume?
Meanwhile the worst are full of passionate intensity, extolling the pursuit of happiness above all else: “You be you,” these mendacious operatives coo. “U.B.U.’’
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The original Ubu Roi (or King Ubu) was penned by Jarry with the help of one of his school mates, and was first performed in Paris in 1896. It rocked Parisian society, caused a storm of protest and was quickly shut down. The powers-that-were immediately recognised the work was depicting the emperor sans garments.
Jarry parodies Shakespeare in Ubu Roi, likely lifting Ma Ubu’s plotting and the king’s murder from Macbeth, the appearance of a dead father’s ghost from Hamlet, a bear (which pursues!) from A Winter’s Tale, along with many other intertextual references; the discovery of which becomes part of the fun as the action unfolds.
The fluency of the language and the pacing becomes more assured as the production progresses. This is the first play Hilliar has written and he references his steep learning curve in the notes. There’s an enormous spirit of inventiveness in Hilliar’s writing, however.
Jarry introduced the word ‘merdre’ in the original, a misspelling of the more familiar merde. Hilliar playfully gives us a whole new lexicon of swear-ish words to draw on. Eventually, the playwright’s desire to communicate his environmental message overwhelms the plot, and he has the character ‘Princess Munt’ deliver a direct (Brechtian/alienating) address to audience; all very effective.
The actors can’t be faulted for a lack of energy or commitment. Emily Elise as Ma Ubu and Sam Glissan as Pa Ubu take the opportunity to showcase their excellent comic timing. Tristan Black as Prime Minister Bjullschitt captures a conservative – perhaps Turnbullesque – self-assuredness to elicit a spirit of Schadenfreude. Idam Sondhi’s puppet work is outstanding, creating the magical sense of a fully realised character.
Ultimately, the highest compliment is probably to note that this production feels true to the spirit of the original: Ubu was never meant to be pretty. It’s shocking, funny, irreverent stuff.
Hilliar uses the arrogance and incompetence Ubu represents to lambast contemporary complacency. It is executed so effectively here, on what I assume is a small budget, that I’m surprised we don’t see even more of Ubu on our independent stages.
This content created with the support of City of Sydney