When Dominic Hill’s arresting staging of Alfred Jarry’s scatological classic reaches London at the end of November, it will be the final installment of the Young Genius season, a joint Barbican/Young Vic venture in celebration of those artists, such as Jarry, Robert Lepage and Christopher Marlowe, for whom inspiration struck early. Hill’s own distinctive genius, however, has led him to place this “Ubu the King” not in a world of vigorous youth but in the altogether more doddery setting of a retirement home.
It’s an inspired move. By putting Ubu’s rise to tyranny in a landscape of wheelchairs, walkers and incontinent seniors, Hill finds a brilliant parallel for the playwright’s excesses and political anger. Where Jarry has surrealism, Hill offers senility; where Jarry has authoritarianism, Hill provides the orthodoxy of the nursing home; and where Jarry has a rude explosion of bodily functions, Hill gives us, well, exactly the same.
On its first staging in Paris in 1896, Jarry’s play almost sparked a riot after the first utterance — the invented word “merdre” with its resonances of the vulgar merde. It’s been translated as “pschitt” and here, in David Greig’s punchy new version, as “shat.” That combination of obscenity and invention sets the tone for a ribald parody of Macbeth — coupled with a satire of bourgeois values — as Ubu and his wife murder the king and claim power before beginning a life of blood-thirsty indulgence.
What’s unusual about Dundee Rep Theater joint artistic director Hill’s staging is that the whole story appears to be played out in the heads of a bunch of deluded old-timers. Gerry Mulgrew’s Dad Ubu and Ann Louise Ross’ Mum Ubu are two of the younger residents in the day room of a dingy nursing home, half-heartedly decorated with paper-chains and Christmas tree on Tom Piper’s splendidly depressing set.
Mulgrew, whose trademark shock of hair and wild beard have been trimmed for the occasion, has good reason for his vulgarity. His cries of “shat” are accompanied by the sound of flatulence and his repeated escapes to the line of WCs at the back of the stage. He is foul-mouthed in the way that people can be once they reach a certain age and have no social standing left to lose.
Ross makes a splendid foil for him, smoking and cursing with equal aplomb, and becoming hilariously lusty as their power accumulates — her sexual drive matched by the other residents who pile onto a hospital bed for an over-age orgy at the culmination of a particularly obscene song.
Everything that happens, however, appears to be a fantasy, humored along by their care worker — a striking debut from Emun Elliott, straight out of college and already showing mature poise and quiet confidence. He takes on a string of regal roles but however many times he is murdered by Ubu, he springs back to life. For all Ubu’s acts of rebellion, the authority of the home is immutable. Ubu might think he is being treated like a king, being bathed, fed and watered by the carer, but these are all acts of dependency.
It’s like Brecht’s “Arturo Ui” mixed with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Hill building a picture of power, both real and imagined, behind the mask of over-the-top school-boy humor. Ubu is a senile fantasist who makes us laugh, but there is something horribly shocking about his violence. It’s funny to see the squirts of blood as he executes the lawyers, the judges and the “posh,” but you can’t help thinking of Stalin, Ceausescu or Hussein at the same time.
This feeling is strongest in the first half, the impact of which is not quite equaled in the more meandering second act. But it remains a dark and delirious production that roots an absurdist masterpiece in painful reality.