As you take your seat for Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu Roi, you may wonder if you have come to the right theatre. Nick Ormerod’s set is a modern French dining room tastefully appointed in cream – abstract art on the walls, wine chilling in readiness for dinner guests. A radio burbles away to itself in French. How, you think, is this to be the backdrop for Alfred Jarry’s wild, scatological portrait of a bombastic dictator? Then you spot the teenager lurking disconsolately on the sofa, glowering at his comfortable surroundings.
Declan Donnellan’s inspired and revelatory idea is to splice the play with a bourgeois dinner party and so to address head-on the adolescent bile and humour that courses through Jarry’s original. The 1896 play, with its remarkably prescient depiction of the grotesque excesses to which dictators can run, emerged from the young playwright’s observation of pompous teachers. Here the scowling cynic is the teenage son (Sylvain Levitte) of a well-to-do French couple (Christophe Grégoire and Camille Cayol). As they flit about the apartment, fussing over the decor, the son’s acid gaze transforms them momentarily into Père and Mère Ubu – greedy, grasping monsters who strut about the room, drooling.
The dinner guests (Xavier Boiffier, Vincent de Bouard and Cécile Leterme) flutter in, murmuring compliments, but in the son’s eyes they join the story. The staging (performed in French) flips back and forth, with the guests switching in an instant from dinner table chit-chat to murderous regime-change. They improvise wildly, like children: a pepper-pot becomes a sceptre, a lampshade a crown and characters are vanquished with a blast of all-purpose cleaner. We hear the blood-curdling screams of the nobles, judges and financiers as they are despatched via the food-blender.
It’s endlessly inventive and wickedly funny. As the room gradually fills with detritus, the production reflects the boy’s wrath but also emphasises just how thin the veneer of civilisation might be. The messy, savage nature of the rebellion both suits the text and celebrates the physical virtuosity of the brilliant French cast.
The prelude establishing the framework goes on far too long and battle-weariness sets in two-thirds of the way through. But this exhilarating reading rekindles the savage comedy of the original; it also chillingly suggests that complacency is the enemy for all of us. At the end, the son, having vented his fury, joins the adults at the table and they all party on, oblivious to the destruction around them.