Mini-review – Ubu Roi – Cheek by Jowl at the Barbican (Silk Street Theater)

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You’re not going to care but I’m going to tell you anyway. When I was in college, I was in a punk band with my roommates called “Sheepchild.” One of our songs was called “Ubu Roi.” It was what I’d named my really crappy car, the one I bought for $400 and then immediately spent $600 repairing over the course of the one month I had it before I gave up. It broke me financially and pretty much ensured that, right after I graduated, I was unable to work any kind of decent job because I was dirt poor and living in a city with no public transportation. I’d painted a picture of Ubu Roi on the hood of the car in florescent spray paint; I’d seen the picture in one of my roommate’s art textbooks. The song went:

Ubu the little car
Ubu where you are
You’re in the garage
You’re not in my house
Ubu. Ubu.
One day, you’re gonna be in jail! Where cars go when they die, you know, car hell!
Ubu. 160 dollars. 97 dollars. 120 dollars. Ubu.

We were never famous but somewhere there is a cassette tape of me singing this song while one of my roommates plays the drums and the other roommate plays a badly tuned guitar.

Okay, so did that bore you? Now that is how I felt during the opening moments of Cheek by Jowl’s production of Ubu Roi. I was peeved that the tickets were so freaking expensive (27 quid is way high for me) and then it was going to be TWO HOURS (nearly) with no interval, and there we were watching some fucking actor with a live video camera feed showing his face, and then the couch, and then some more of the set. And then he goes back stage and the feed continues as if there’s actually a house back there with people (his parents, presumably) preparing food and getting dressed in preparation for a dinner party. And I’m sitting there going, for fuck’s sake, they’re wasting my time showing me a close up of the fucking carpet in the bathroom, and I’m going to be thinking I could have been home 20 minutes earlier if they hadn’t wasted my time with this Katie Mitchell crap.

And then, I realize, the whole play is going to be performed in French, which the actors are muttering to each other while the supertitles have clearly frozen. I don’t even have the opportunity to try to understand what they’re saying because they’re not talking loudly enough. And there are an hour and forty minutes still to go.

Doom. I consider leaning over to my husband and telling him some anecdotes about my day to kill time while this wretched beast lumbers along, and then, suddenly, everything goes green, the kid’s mom and dad start twitching and jerking and it’s like he’s starting to channel his feelings about this bourgeois spectacle through them. It clears up and they act normal again, but then it’s Hulk time and off they go and they’re nearly humping on stage and reality is getting fucked with. And it clears again and it’s a dinner party with a sulky teenager …

And then it’s the play Ubu Roi, a tale of greed, lust, cowardice, violence, and stupidity (with functioning supertitles), that could never have been much more than a Punch and Judy show but somehow as spoken through the mouths of these rather glamorous normal people took on a hideous reality that I was totally sucked into. Every character was a caricature but pushed to the uttermost limit of ridiculousness. You couldn’t help but despise each and every person on stage, and, yet, the whole thing was just incredibly compelling, and made absolute sense as a channel of the id and idiocy of a teenaged boy.

Damn, this was a good night. I never thought about needing to go to the bathroom after minute 12. But I did find myself craving, just a tiny bit, some nice cheese and perhaps a bit of wine, and remembering the raw creativity of 1990 and how much fun it was to live in a house where we did spontaneous plays, band performances and puppet shows, made art out of pizza and stages out of couches and cushions, and rollerskated through the living room. Aaaaah, Ubu, your reputation has only improved over time.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 15th, 2013. It continues through April 20th.)

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