In addition to my two trips to 59E59 (reports on Summer Shorts and Bette Davis Ain’t for Sissies are posted on ROT on 12 and 17 August, respectively), Diana, my frequent theater companion, and I went to the Upper West Side to see a couple of performances in this year’s Lincoln Center Festival. Our first was Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, produced by Cheek by Jowl, a London-based troupe, and co-produced with the Barbican, London; Les Gémeaux – Scène Nationale de Sceaux, Paris; and Comédie de Béthune – Centre Dramatique National du Nord – Pas-de-Calais. Performed in French with English supertitles, the new production was directed by Declan Donnellan, Cheek by Jowl’s artistic director, and staged at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater of John Jay College of Criminal Justice (a division of the City University of New York) at 59th Street and 10th/Amsterdam Avenue (the street name changes right at that corner). Like most LCF performances, Ubu had a short run in New York City, from 22 to 26 July, and the final performance was streamed live around the world. Diana and I caught the show on Thursday, 23 July, at 7:30 p.m.
The Lincoln Center Festival, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, was launched in 1995 and in July 1996 began showcasing performances from around the world in opera, chamber music, theater, multimedia performance, ballet, modern dance, and multidisciplinary works. 2015’s entries included 58 events from France, Germany, China, England, Ireland, Russia, Georgia, Japan, and all over the U.S. Some presenters, like Cheek by Jowl and Yukio Ninagawa, are internationally famous; others received a rare exposure to U.S. audiences. According to its own statistics, over its two decades, LCF has presented more than 1,300 performances, commissioned over 40 works, and hosted 142 U.S., New York, and world premières. To accomplish this feat, LCF uses not only all the facilities of the campus of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts on Broadway at 65th Street—including the outdoor venue, Damrosch Park—but theater and performance spaces all over the neighborhood from Columbus Circle (including space in the Time Warner Center) up to Juilliard, and even farther afield, going as far east as the Park Avenue Armory (between 66th and 67th Street on Park).
Nigel Redden, artistic director of LCF, states: “We have always believed that classical and contemporary art forms, Western and non-Western traditions, and technologies old and new, have much to learn from one another.” Expressing one of the principal benefits I always cite of living in New York City, Redden added: “One of the most unique and exciting things about Lincoln Center Festival is the chance to experience within the space of one month the contrast between different artists’ works from around the globe . . . .” Many of these artists and companies appear in other cities—but almost all of them sooner or later come to New York! Part of that phenomenon is LCF.
Cheek by Jowl’s co-artistic directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod (the company’s designer) established the company in 1981, with its first presentation at that year’s Edinburgh Festival. The company, dedicated to productions that focus on the art of the actor, presents work in English, French, and Russian. The company has so far performed in 380 cities in over 50 countries on six continents. With Cheek by Jowl performing regularly in Moscow through the 1980s and ’90s, the Chekhov International Theatre Festival commissioned Donnellan and Ormerod to form a company of Russian actors in 1999. In 2007, Peter Brook, whose International Centre for Theatre Research is in residence at Paris’s Bouffes du Nord, invited the Cheek by Jowl leaders to form a group of French actors. (Ubu Roi is the latest work of that troupe.) I’ve seen a number of Cheek by Jowl productions over the years, starting with The Duchess of Malfi in 1995 and going up to 2012 when I saw my last Cheek by Jowl production, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore. I didn’t like them much—but, then, I’m not a fan of Jacobean tragedy.
Jarry (1873-1907) was a brilliant and curious young man, independent but shy. He entered a Breton lycée (sort of like a prep school in the U.S.) in 1883 where he proved to be an excellent student intellectually, but indifferent about following rules and doing assigned work. Young Jarry was something of an anarchic presence in his classes and at 15, he joined a pair of his schoolmates, brothers who’d been writing satirical pieces on the sly making fun of a physics teacher, one Félix-Frédéric Hébert. Known on the QT as “Père Ébé,” the teacher had the appearance and the reputation of a pompous buffoon. The boys had written a short farce called Les Polonais (“The Poles”) which portrayed Père Ébé as the king of a fantasy Poland. Jarry transformed the sketch (the original version of which is now lost) into a marionette play which the boys performed in one of their homes. That was in 1888; eight years later, Jarry returned to Les Polonais and turned the puerile skit “into a highly charged political statement about a type of person he despised—a bourgeois nationalist who is submissive to, and unquestioning of, authority,” according to Charles Sheek, the LCF program editor. On 10 December 1896, Ubu Roi débuted in Paris at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre. The critical reception was quite mixed, but the production made Jarry famous. (Jarry, who despised praise and flattery, didn’t keep the positive reviews but made a scrapbook to preserve the negative ones.)
Jarry had made a speech introducing the play before the first performance and when he stepped off the stage, the audience heard the first word, uttered by Père Ubu: merdre! (It’s an invented substitute for merde, the French word for ‘shit.’ The supertitles at the Lynch translated it as ‘shitke’—other variations are used in most English renditions—but it’s akin to the British euphemism ‘shite.’) According to Jill Fell, Associate Research Fellow at the Department of European Cultures and Languages of the University of London, in her biography of the playwright, Jarry had intended his claque of drinking buddies in the audience to create a disturbance that would disrupt the performance and become its own “theatrical event.” Poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), who was in the opening night audience, recorded: “The audience shakes their fists at one another, and the Rhymer [a reference to a member of the Rhymer’s Club, which Yeats had formed] whispers to me, ‘There are often duels after these performances,’ and he explains to me what is happening on the stage.”
The daring play, wild, bizarre, and comic, is seen by many in the arts as significant because Jarry overturns cultural rules, norms, and conventions. Those in the opening-night audience witnessed what seemed to be a revolutionary artistic event seen by many today as a precursor to Dada, Surrealism, and Absurdism. Like his other writings, Ubu is controversial for its disrespect of royalty, religion, and society in general. Jarry indulged in vulgarity, scatology, brutality, and low comedy, and his work is often criticized for a complete absence of literary polish. Ubu Roi is loosely plotted with numerous characters (pared down to six actors by Donnellan), many of whom appear for only one short scene; some of the characters’ names are childish references to French vulgarities: Bordure, for instance, sounds like ordure, French for ‘manure’; Bougrelas is built on the word bougre, French for ‘bugger.’ The play’s diction is a pastiche of high literature and slang, much of it made up.
Catulle Mendès (1841-1909), a poet, critic, and man of letters, wrote of Ubu Roi:
A new type has been put before us, created by the extravagant and brutal imagination of a man who is a sort of child. Père Ubu exists . . . . You will not be able to get rid of him; he will haunt you and perpetually force you to remember not only that he passed this way, but that he has arrived and is here . . . .
Poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98), to whom Jarry had sent a presentation edition of Ubu, applauded:
With the skill of a sure and sober dramatic sculptor, my dear friend, and with a rare and durable clay upon your fingers, you have set a prodigious figure on his feet, together with his troop. He enters the repertoire of high taste and haunts me; thank you.
In his Autobiographies, Yeats confessed that
that night at the Hotel Corneille I am very sad . . . . I say: “After Stéphane Mallarmé, after Paul Verlaine, after Gustave Moreau, after Puvis de Chavannes, after our own verse, after all our subtle color and nervous rhythm, after the faint mixed tints of [Charles Edward] Conder, what more is possible? After us the Savage God.”
That opening night performance of Ubu Roi was the last one, except for some marionette versions, until after Jarry died. The play became popular in, of all locations, eastern Europe, first in the ’20s and then again in the ’90s following the fall of the Soviet Union. Ubu became the basis of several films and a 1992 opera. A number of modern adaptations of Ubu have been produced, including Jane Taylor’s Ubu and the Truth Commission (1998) which criticized the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission in response to the atrocities committed under apartheid, and United States of Banana (2011), a Puerto Rican black comedy by Giannina Braschi which ridicules the United States. Modern translations and adaptations, often interpreted as commentary on the many 20th-century tyrants from Idi Amin to Nicolae Ceausescu to Papa Doc Duvalier (and his son, Baby Doc) were mounted in the U.S., Canada, and Australia in the 1990s, 2000’s, and 2010’s (including the International Festival of Puppet Theater in 1996). Cheek by Jowl’s current staging was presented in Paris on 5-8 March 2013 and then Aquitaine (26-29 March) and Marseilles (3-6 April); the production then moved on to the Barbican in London from 10 to 20 April 2013 followed by a tour of the U.K. before coming to New York’s Lincoln Center.
Jarry descended into alcohol and drug abuse after the death of his parents in 1893, soon spending all his small inheritance. He lived in squalor and often didn’t leave his room for days on end. Jarry’s friends became concerned at not seeing him for several days and went to check on him, finding him unresponsive. They rushed him to a hospital, but the dissolute playwright died at 34 from tuberculosis on 1 November 1907. In addition to seven novels, some of which weren’t published until long after Jarry’s death, he only wrote five plays—four of which were about Ubu. His influence, however, far outstripped his productivity: he was esteemed by, among others, Guillaume Apollinaire (poet, playwright, short story writer, novelist, and art critic;1880-1918), André Salmon (poet, art critic, and writer;1881-1969), and Max Jacob (poet, painter, writer, and critic;1876-1944); Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was so fascinated with Jarry that after the writer’s death, the painter bought the revolver Jarry used to carry with him and, eventually, many of the dramatist’s manuscripts. Picasso also did a sketch of Jarry, 1907’s Composition with a Death’s Head, and surrealist painter Joan Miró (1893-1983) used Ubu Roi as a subject for a series of lithographs in 1940 that also satirize then Spanish dictator Francisco Franco.
Donnellan’s Ubu begins with Mère Ubu (Camille Cayol), like a bizarro Lady Macbeth, urging her husband, Père Ubu (Christophe Grégoire), Captain of the Dragoons and councilor to King Wenceslas (Vincent de Boüard), to kill the King and his family and usurp the throne. Père Ubu immediately agrees and persuades Captain Bordure (Xavier Bolffier), to whom Ubu promises the Dukedom of Lithuania, to join the plot. As Ubu continues with his nefarious plan to ensure that Wenceslas and Queen Rosemonde (Cécile Leterme), and especially young Prince Bougrelas (Sylvain Levitte), are killed as well, Wenceslas announces that he intends to make Ubu Count of Sandomir during a parade the next day.
Donnellan added scenes of an elegant dinner party with Bordure, Wenceslas, and Rosemonde, with whispered conversation about wine and food and trivialities of polite chit-chat (which weren’t included in the supertitle translations), alternating with the frenetic violence and brutality of Jarry’s play. The performance vacillated between Jarry’s scenes from the original text and the staid, formal dinner scenes. The Ubus and their guests never seemed to notice the progressively deteriorating state of the apartment, which was pristine at the opening but ended up a disaster site. The Ubus’ teenaged son (Levitte), a character who doesn’t exist in Jarry’s original play, videotaped everything and the videos (created by Benoit Simon and Quentin Vigier and sometimes showed scenes on stage in real time and sometimes showed scenes taking place off stage which we didn’t see live) were projected onto the back wall of the apartment set, revealing aspects of the bourgeois Ubu family we wouldn’t otherwise have seen. Ubu fils was like a film auteur making a docudrama, it seemed, imagining his parents as King and Queen Ubu and himself as Bougrelas. We were seeing the story through his distorted, nightmare vision.
Aided by Bordure and his supporters, Ubu carried out the murder of the King at the parade and took the crown—but Bougrelas managed to evade the assassins and escape with his mother, who quickly sickened and died. Ubu, who began spending the country’s treasury profligately, rounded up the noblemen, magistrates, and financiers (played by the suitably recostumed Bolffier, de Boüard, and Leterme, who also took other parts as needed) and executed them one by one because they stood in the way of Ubu’s plans to use dubious reforms to gain huge sums of money.
Bordure began to conspire against Ubu, who imprisoned his former coconspirator, but Bordure escaped and fled to Moscow to join the Russian emperor in the fight against Ubu. In Poland, Ubu prepared for battle and marched into the Ukraine. Ubu learned that the Poles had risen up and all seemed lost. The Russians attacked, and Ubu fled the field to take refuge in a cave in Lithuania. Coincidentally, Mère Ubu, having taken flight from Poland with Bougrelas at her heels, came across the same cave. The two were arguing ferociously when Bougrelas and his army assaulted the cave. But Ubu’s supporters arrived just in time to provide the Ubus a quick escape. The battle lost and his power gone, Ubu declared that he was happy to be rid of the crown and he, Mère Ubu, and their followers set out for a new life.
I haven’t sorted this all out yet. (To dispel a possible misapprehension, I should say that I liked the performance; I just haven’t figured out what to make if it.) The actors are all French (as opposed to “international” actors speaking French), and I don’t think the company messed with the text. There’s no “adapter” listed, but Donnellan did make some changes, and the publicity material states that Cheek by Jowl has “ingeniously re-imagined” the play. The last time I saw a production of Ubu was at the Lincoln Center Theater (the Mitzi E. Newhouse) in 1989. I don’t remember the text, which was an adaptation and translated into English, at all, but Donnellan doesn’t seem to have substantially altered Jarry’s original text. He’s pared the cast to six from several dozen (by multiple-casting some roles and eliminating others); the “ingenious re-imagining,” however, doesn’t appear to have come from a revision of the script, but a reinterpretation of the structure and the central viewpoint. Cheek by Jowl has also shifted the point of Ubu Roi: it’s usually seen as a study of a tyrant and his tyranny, but Donnellan’s made it an examination of the “thin line between order and chaos” (Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post) and a demonstration of “how a middle-class household can be just as tyrannical as an old-fashioned dictatorship” (Brendan Lemon, Financial Times). I guess it’s accurate to label Donnellan’s reinterpretation of Ubu Roi a deconstruction of Jarry’s play, or what the Situationists would have called a détournement.
The Cheek by Jowl production was starkly modern: Ormerod’s very contemporary, cream-and-taupe upscale bourgeois’s apartment, set for a dinner party; the characters were well-dressed—men in suits, women in elegant gowns (except for the teenaged son, who wore jeans, sneaks, and a long-sleeved T). Ormerod also did the costumes, and all of this, except the boy’s attire, was stylish but cold, like a room in a design or architecture magazine where no one actually lives. The familiar household objects of a middle-class home became significant in unfamiliar uses: a toilet brush became Ubu’s scepter, an ice bucket his “orb,” a lampshade the crown of Poland, and an electric kitchen appliance his weapon of execution. The lighting and tech were also very contemporary (rather than some approximation of 19th-century staging), with strobe effects, blackouts (or dim-outs), and blaring electronic music/sounds, not to mention the video.
The production was excellent, including the demanding acting (both physically and, I’d imagine, emotionally exhausting). The show was an hour and 50 minutes without an intermission, so it was pretty taxing, I’d think. I can’t single out one or two performances over the others, first because this was a true ensemble cast, and second because all the actors were tremendously skilled. Distinguishing between the script scenes, delivered at full stage energy—perhaps even at a higher-than-ordinary level under Donnellan’s heightened pace and volume—and the sotto voce dinner-party scenes without losing the separation and without making either of them seem artificial in the context of this Cheek by Jowl interpretation, was a remarkable acting achievement in my book.
Diana found the production “alienating” (my word from her description), which I think was Donnellan’s intention. There was some laughter in the audience, but I’d guess those were French-speakers who got a joke (or an obscenity) here and there the rest of us didn’t catch. Jarry turned the student-written original sketch into a brutal political commentary, and I think Donnellan took that further. The play contained a lot of chit-chat and mumbling that was adlibbed and too low to hear clearly (and wasn’t in the supertitles)—the play started with a very long scene of this as the Ubus got ready for their dinner party—I couldn’t time it because I couldn’t see my watch in the semi-darkness, but it must have been five minutes of semi-pantomime—and in one such bit, Ubu was off the front of the stage in front of the first row and he was saying things about “business moguls,” “Will you vote for me?” and “the primaries” (in English)—and I believe those were meant to be taken as allusions to the Republican presidential primary campaign and, specifically, Donald Trump (the only “business mogul” in the race, I believe).
Press coverage of the Lincoln Center Festival was scant. The New York Times seemed to have reviewed more of the events than any other outlet, and Ben Brantley, calling Ubu “flamboyantly vicious,” had a lot of praise for Cheek by Jowl’s delivery (though he had small reservations about the original material’s usual presentation). “Vive l’adolescence!” shouted the Timesman, who saw the play as a representation of “more or less what their high-school-age sons and daughters see when they look upon their doting parents” because Cheek by Jowl’s interpretation “asks us to see Jarry’s play through the eyes of a sulky, moody, sexually tormented adolescent, who is pitilessly judgmental of his elders.” Brantley added, “The spirit of rancorous rebellion that rumbles within every teenager is storming the bourgeois barricades in” Cheek by Jowl’s interpretation of Jarry’s play as the teen’s “hard, warping gaze . . . turns his parents and their guests into the pathological cast of ‘Ubu Roi.’” Brantley declared, “Like many visions born of disgust and hormones run riot, this one is a horror to behold,” but found that the troupe “have come up with a revitalizing approach to a watershed of transgressive culture.” The Times reviewer reported that “what makes this ‘Ubu Roi’ more than a clever riff on a period piece is its sense of the raw, ravening anger in the boy’s satirical vision.” In the realm of performance, furthermore, Brantley asserted that “it’s impossible not to be transfixed by the raging force of its energy.” He thought, “Watching the cast move seamlessly from raffiné propriety to violent anarchy is a rousing testament to the metamorphic joys of acting. The ensemble deploys a scenery-battering physical vocabulary that turns pratfalls into rattling death throes and finds the kinship between tragedy and farce.”
Brendan Lemon of the Financial Times deemed that the Cheek by Jowl production made “a scenario [that] seems a stretch . . . effective through sheer exhilaration.” The FT review-writer, however, gave credit where it was due, recording that “Donnellan . . . and his designer, Nick Ormerod, rescue the evening from glibness by visually and verbally switching the point of view.” Lemon also saw that the “story is not offered as third-person reality but as the ravings of a teenage obsessive.” In the acting realm, he singled out Grégoire, who, as Ubu, “is especially demented in his zigzag between bourgeois père and clownish monarch,” and Levitte, who “imbues the son with . . . bourgeois mischief.”
In the New York Post, Elisabeth Vincentelli dubbed Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu “a punk play” that’s “as anti-establishment as the Sex Pistols braying at the queen.” The NYP reviewer, however, asserted, “The problem is that Alfred Jarry’s nihilistic masterwork is completely gonzo, with made-up words, grotesque characters and outlandish plot developments—bloody massacres, a character fighting a bear in a cave—that make it hard to stage.” To solve this, Vincentelli reported that Donnellan “switches back and forth between the ever-polite party’s hushed talk of wine and cheese—scenes added by the director—and Jarry’s play, which now appears to take place in the son’s semi-psychotic mind.”
On the website CurtainUp, Deirdre Donovan decreed that though Ubu Roi may not cause riots as it did in 1896, “A century later . . . shocking it is.” Donovan insisted that director Donnellan and designer Ormerod “deliver one unforgettable production” from which “you get . . . an undiluted dose of Jarry’s drama of grotesques.” As for the cast, “What is astonishing,” noted the CU reviewer, “is their versatility”: “The actors nail down their respective characters, and marvelously reveal them in their alternating rational and irrational moments.” In conclusion, Donovan’s ultimate assessment is: “This is a dream production.”
[Diana and I went to two LCF events this year. The second was Yukio Ninagawa’s Kafka on the Shore, an adaptation of the novel by Haruki Murakami. Because of scheduling, I won’t be posting that report until early September. (The Festival closed at the end of July, so neither show is available now.) I hope ROTters will come back then and see what I thought that was all about.]