It is rare that I find myself utterly wanting for words to express my feelings on anything, but Ubu Roi happens to have done just that. Usually, when I go to write a review, I consider the production within the context of all the theatre I have seen in my life. I set it within a certain paradigm, consider what effect it seems to have been aiming for, and try to assess it by the goals which it has set out for itself. This play is so utterly bizarre, so determined not to be analysed by conventional standards, that it is difficult to know by which standards to judge it.
The plot (so far as there is one) follows Ma and Pa Ubu, a grasping, maniacal, power-hungry duo, as they win and then quickly lose control of the kingdom of Poland. I did not get the impression though, that anyone in the production team was particularly bothered by such mundane concerns as plot – the mere decision to attempt to stage this early piece of absurdism is evidence enough that comprehensibility was not a priority.
Before we fall too deeply into that rabbit hole though, some thoughts on the somewhat firmer ground of staging and technical aspects. Director Gabriele Uboldi is quickly establishing a directing style unique in St Andrews, with a strong focus on physical theatre. At its best, this can be powerful and exciting for the audience. One battle scene, in particular, was highly energetic and comically effective, as Henry Roberts (Pa Ubu) was tossed around by chorus members uttering squeals of protest. However, throughout a lot of the production, the nine chorus members and incredibly sparse staging were simply not enough to fill the space. In a smaller venue, this production might have felt as powerfully overwhelming as it clearly aimed to be, trapping the audience with no room to escape this surreal hellscape. In the Byre though, despite the clear promise of the physical sequences, they felt swamped and underwhelming.
While the aim was clearly for a minimalist set leaving attention on the actors and technical effects, in practice this simply felt empty. While the onstage DJ and use of projection again were original and had great potential, it was impossible to appreciate these when the music was so loud that the (miked) actors could barely be heard for whole scenes.
Credit absolutely must be given to the production’s two leads, Molly Williams and Henry Roberts. Both managed to sustain a tremendous amount of energy throughout the play, their hysteria and high-pitched giggling somehow both appealing and deeply troubling. Both also demonstrated excellent physicality, cavorting around the stage and ravishing each other with clear, delightful relish. This was especially commendable as at times the production was not as slick as it might have been, and their energy covered these slow moments as well as could be hoped. I was particularly impressed by this demonstration of versatility from Roberts, who previously has been somewhat stuck in the typecast of quiet middle-aged man. The highlight of the production for me was a speech delivered by Williams, in which she removed her clownish makeup and acknowledged the Ubus’ poor beginnings and the falseness of their “mask”. This moment provided a refreshing contrast to the rest of the production and was the closest it came to any coherent message, theme or characterisation.
I said earlier that the play is so far outside of convention that it is difficult to set any standards on it. And I get the sense that this is the point. Certain artistic outputs of modernism (of which Ubu is a forerunner and originator) give the sense that they are primarily concerned with breaking rules because if they don’t play by any recognised standards they cannot be criticised in the same terms. This, to me, feels like cheating. Perhaps I did miss the point – but I’m not entirely sure there was one, and no amount of chorus members licking what I hope was chocolate from a toilet brush will convince me that there was. I deeply admire Uboldi’s style and believe that it fills a niche that has been empty for some time in St Andrews. I just hope that next time he chooses to apply this to a script a little more comprehensible and a little less faeces-obsessed.