The Warren: The Blockhouse – Brighton Fringe
Reviewed – 27th May 2018
“The plot begins to unravel, buried under a barrage of abuse, bloodlust, and bizarre fighting that looks an awful lot like Morris dancing”
It is hard to know where to begin with Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s infamous, proto-absurdist masterpiece. Equal parts inspired and inane, the original production caused a riot at its Paris premiere and was subsequently banned from the French stage for several decades. Thank goodness such restrictions don’t apply to the Brighton Fringe.
Set in medieval Poland, the plot revolves around the grotesque figure of Pere Ubu, a capricious, cowardly, and infantile courtier with an insatiable appetite for food and sex. Together with his wife, the equally insatiable but altogether more intelligent Mere Ubu, our apparent hero conspires to kill the king of Poland and claim the crown for himself. The further up the food chain this insane figure rises, the more despicable, depraved, and hilarious he becomes. The plot begins to unravel, buried under a barrage of abuse, bloodlust, and bizarre fighting that looks an awful lot like Morris dancing. But reading between the lines of the crazed dialogue, it becomes clear that Jarry has hidden a deadly serious commentary on humanity itself. Just as in the world of Ubu Roi, real life is frequently ridiculous, unfair, and over much too quickly. Perhaps the only antidote is to laugh.
The madness is captured brilliantly by Squall + Frenzy, the Brighton-based company responsible for this production. Owen Bleach and Ada Dodds – Pere and Mere respectively – make for a hilariously dysfunctional double act, maintaining the hysterical tone of the piece without ever trampling on the story. A series of equally brilliant supporting characters are played by Chris Gates, Matt Grief, Tara Richards, and Matt Swan. Though the show may appear to unfold into complete anarchy, it is the tightness of the actors’ performances that make such an effect possible.
The audience gets dragged into the mayhem as well, regularly called upon to join in with the characters’ chaotic schemes or suffer the consequences of them. At one point a hapless punter fails to literally kill Owen Bleach – as opposed to his character – copping himself an angry earful from the Tsar of Russia (or perhaps from Chris Gates himself?). I myself am summarily executed along with several other members of the audience and later I nearly lose an eye thanks to one of Mere Ubu’s impressively spikey nipples (watch yourself if you sit in the front row). In a meltdown of petulant rage, Pere Ubu eventually attempts to have the entire world executed, including all the actors and the long-dead author of the play itself. It is reluctantly that he realises he must make do with those of us he has to hand.
I love the idea that someone could stumble into Ubu Roi without any concept of theatre. Perhaps only under those conditions could a person truly appreciate Jarry’s absurd message. For those of us who have arrived willingly, we realise that the play is an entertainment, and that the ridiculous childishness is all part of the fun, and perhaps even rather clever. But for a viewer unaware of what they are seeing, the ensuing assault on their senses and dignity -especially in this immersive format – would only be marginally more terrifying than seeing the crowd they are in laughing and cheering as Ubu becomes ever more depraved. But as the “Make Poland Great Again” slogan on Squall + Frenzy’s poster suggests, perhaps such a reality isn’t so surreal after all.
Reviewed by Harry True