King Ubu

King Ubu was performed only once in playwright Alfred Jarry’s life. It provoked a riot and moved Yeats, who was in the original audience, to make his famous pronouncement on the future of the literary avante-garde: “After us the Savage God.”

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.

Reviews by Aron Penczu

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The Blurb

This playful reinvention of Alfed Jarry's notorious play combines comic physical storytelling and tight ensemble work to engage and entertain the whole family. The audience are invited to Poland to see the dastardly Ubu and his greedy wife rise to power through their treacherous and villainous deeds. Who will stop them? Don't miss this gem, from Greene Shoots Theatre. 'Must see show of 2010' ***** ( on The Venetian Twins). 'Quite simply, a knockout. Funny, farcical and very physical' **** (ThreeWeeks on The Venetian Twins). 'It hooked me from the start... An excellent production' (Berkhamstedian on King Ubu.