Alfred Jarry’s infamous Ubu Roi was reimagined by Mermaids in a recent production at the Byre Theatre.
The production team and cast of Ubu Roi ought to be commended for their ambition in attempting a new, apparently more radical version of a play defined by the incendiary moment of its first performance (picture angry nineteenth century Parisians shaking their fists from the opening line). I entered the Byre Theatre surprised and impressed that such time, thought, and creative energy had been put into the nearly impossible task of reimagining Alfred Jarry’s work.
Previews and publicity for Ubu Roi boasted an experience like no other: hip-hop choreography, champagne, and a bear. Perhaps this was part of the problem; many of the “outrageous” moments were so successfully advertised that the audience of mainly students was hardly surprised with most of the production’s selling points. More importantly, though, the production suffered from the lack of a singular directorial vision. An admirable attempt (one that I hope to see repeated in future Mermaids productions) to involve the many creative resources available in St Andrews resulted in these elements clashing, and none doing so thoroughly or successfully enough for the clash to be truly riotous or unsafe.
That said, the Byre is a notoriously difficult space in which to choreograph and tech. The cast of two leads and an all-female ensemble were often dwarfed by the stage. The space wasn’t taken into account in some of the choreographed scenes. The ensemble would have to let itself stumble or move to avoid walking into each other in militaristic sequences. It was clear in these sections that the costumer could have employed more uniformity in the ensemble’s trousers to streamline these movements, rather than visually break synch with the choreography.
One of the elements I was most excited to see featured in Ubu Roi was a Wax Rooms DJ, who was situated in the centre back of the stage. Setting him in the direct line of the audience’s vision suggested that sound was to play an integral role in the production. The DJ played the same few measures of music that suggested a club in a selection of scenes, but I fail to see how a bass line is in any way surprising or subversive to a contemporary audience. It also overwhelmed the vocals of the actors. While drowning out their voices in all scenes might have made more sense (the play suggests that if we are making out the individual words of the characters we are perhaps engaging with it incorrectly), only utilising the music in obviously tense or wild scenes was overtly conventional and forced the audience to distinguish a narrative for the play. The first act especially suffered, the bawdry comedy and perversion onstage drowned out by occasional swathes of sound that added little to what I saw or heard.
I was curious to see how the “videographer” and “projectionist” listed in my programme would feature in Ubu Roi. In the scenes that used a bass line, the same optical illusion was projected behind the DJ, but only taking up some of the backdrop. This seemed unnecessary, considering the stark set. The same could be said of the pyramids of eyes that were projected onto either side of the stage, suggesting the artistic movements Ubu Roi would go on to influence, but doing little for the production.
As Pa Ubu, however, Henry Roberts seemed to understand the demands set by the text and its reputation the most. His physical commitment to the changing moods and nefarious doings of his character enabled certain scenes to work well, often contributing to the energy of his fellow performers. As Ma Ubu (a reimagining of Lady Macbeth), Molly Williams fared better in the second act. There were a few scenes in which the use of sound truly elevated the play, particularly one in which Ma Ubu was overwhelmed in a sequence of trilingual and revenant sonic mixing, which immersed the audience and the figure onstage. Aided by the production here, Williams did an excellent job of physically and vocally evoking a surreal, breathless moment.
It was creative and ambitious, but it wasn’t as bold as it should or could have been. An example of many good ideas falling to the wayside likely due to lack of clear directorial authority, Ubu Roi left me with a few moments of breathtaking disorder, but hardly the disruption I was promised, and have come to expect from Jarry’s work.
STARS: * * *