It’s a spattered, muckraking romp, with much grinning and plenty of cheek. Alfred Jarry’s classic work of scatological absurdism is here upended into a large pit of mud. It’s quite a feat to have so much mud in such a small theatre, and if you sit in the front row you can expect to cop a little of it, too. You might want to leave the white chinos at home.
Papa Ubu, Jarry’s gross anti-hero, is a monster of veniality, obsessed with his “cornhole”, his gut and his “phynances”. He rises to the throne of a make-believe Poland, overthrowing the royal family and liquidating the aristocracy, before leading his nation into a disastrous war with Russia. His fall is as swift and messy as his ascent. It’s a story sketched by Jarry with almost primitive brevity.
Thanks to designer Mattea Davies, this production looks marvellous, with a tall mural – a murky vision of chthonic demonology – overlooking the sloppy pit, the whole arrangement wreathed in plastic screens which are occasionally, for the audience's comfort, when the mud begins to fly, drawn across the stage. With Douglas Montgomery’s subdued lighting it has a beautiful cave-like atmosphere, and it shows how versatile this homely space can be.
The young cast, attractively trussed in distressed underwear ornamented with woolly satyric tufts, wade into this mire with much glee. It’s a bit wild, though the ensemble’s enthusiasm is as much for the scenography as the story, and there seems a lack of ferocity or intensity in the characterisation. Nicholas Dubberley stands out for his panting, bearish performance as Ubu, dominating the stage. Amy Jones is also giddy good fun as his wife, Mama Ubu. But we don’t get much feeling for the wretched couple’s absurd nobility. That’s typical of this production as a whole: the director and cast don't ever advance this rather ancient translation of the text past posturing and pomposity. While there is a lot of piratical energy, this production remains, as it were, thematically stuck in the mud of its own making.