It’s clear from the first word of the play—“Merrrde!” in the French original—why a late 19th-century audience might have been outraged.
It’s clear from the first word of the play—“Merrrde!” in the French original—why a late 19th-century audience might have been outraged. Out of the bickerings of the eponymous Pa Ubu (Xavier Owen) and his wife (Jessica Watts) develops a travesty of a Shakespearean plot, cobbled together from Macbeth and Hamlet (with hints of Richard III and Lear). Their puppet-like movements, grotesque expressions, and petty squabbles are a caricature not only of high drama but theatrical convention itself.
In places this is very effective, as in the exaggerated, slow-motion commotion surrounding the King’s murder. The company, composed of Berkahmsted School students, is generally good; Alex Heath as Ubu’s son Boggerlav gives a particularly strong performance. Imaginative use of the set, including wooden poles held to suggest a tower roof, also works well, though complex re-arrangements slow a couple of scene transitions down. Ventures into other kinds of theatre, — a silhouette show to depict nobles’ murder by killer pigs; finger puppets dramatising the battle scene — mix things up to keep the audience engaged.
But King Ubu is precisely too mixed-up a show. Cut down to an hour through the use of a narrating chorus, it shifts awkwardly between ‘straight’ storytelling and grotesque puppetry. A strict demarcation between the two might have served to create the sense of a real life puppet-show, but the chorus fill various bit roles — resulting in performances that span the range from earnest to absurd.
Greene Shoots Theatre have clearly put hard work into King Ubu, and there is some fine theatre here. It’s a shame it can’t quite overcome the production’s structural flaws.