Posts Tagged ‘Cheek by Jowl’

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

April 15, 2013

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.)


Review – Macbeth – Cheek by Jowl productions at The Barbican

March 21, 2010

It’s always a joy to discover you share enthusiasms with other people, especially coworkers. A conversation about dry project details can suddenly come to life when you take a detour to discuss really _important_ things, in my case, The Theater! And it was through such a conversation that I was given a tip to check out Cheek By Jowl’s Macbeth, currently playing at the Barbican. I was discussing my plans to see Henry V and Measure for Measure, and my colleague said that Cheek By Jowl was a great company and that I really needed to fit a trip to their Macbeth into my calendar. Well, okay then! It was mostly sold out, but then a few extra seats were added (in front of the rest of the seats – be warned that if you’re in AA your knees will be above your hips), and as the negative reviews came in for The Gods Weep, I had a consultation with my theater posse and we made an executive decision to ditch the four hour long Weepie in favor of a two hour long trip to Key Show By Bard. Because, really, what’s 25 quid lost compared to a night wasted at a bad show?

I am going to assume that this show represented the Cheek By Jowl style: the stage was nearly completely bare, the actors dressed mostly identically in black jackets or t-shirts and jeans (and black Doc Martins), the whole thing redolent of Ye Olde Emptye Stage. The cast created very strong effects through use of their voices and lighting and almost nothing else. At the beginning, our witches were but two, but all the men stood there whispering behind them, creating a forest full of evil. There was music and other non-vocal effects, such as knocking/banging and cymbal ringing, and even a phone going off. In the darkness, it worked together nicely to focus the attention on the story. Full credits for stagecraft here, except that in the incredibly powerful “Banquo comes to dinner” scene, the fact that Macbeth delivers his address to the back of the stage meant that even in the front row I could barely hear a thing he said – and for once it wasn’t the fault of the damned 17 year old school girl behind me taking notes on a crackling handful of lined notebook paper. I just could have killed her.

However, the performances by the leads were lacking somewhat. I realize I’m polluted by Patrick Stewart’s Macbeth three years back, but his acting conveyed to me clearly the character’s movement from hearty and happy to doubtful to corrupt and finally just plain mad; Will Keen started seeming partway over the edge and seemed to lack a grasp of moving toward madness, or even expressing it … well, with any subtlety. (I’ve complained about this before. Madness seems to be a hard thing to act out well; drunk seems to get practiced more and thus performed better.) I also found Lady Macbeth (Anastasia Hille) playing the part through a slimmer range than it deserved, though her final mad scene (“Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him!”) was great; she just seemed too quick to kill in general. Keen certainly worked very hard at his Macbeth, and was a sweating wreck long before the play was over, but to me that just showed that his pacing was off, that he sprinted too soon instead of taking his time and giving it all an arc.

Of course, with a two hour, intermission-free running time, the whole play was a bit of a sprint, and I think, in retrospect, that, despite my general preference for shorter shows, it was this cutting that was the greatest fault of this production. The script is incredibly powerful, but most of the moments I had found most affecting in the past – Macduff’s wife’s scene, Macduff finding out about the death of “his pretty chickens” (which should bring tears to your eyes), the whole ghosty banquet – were rushed through and lost a lot of their emotional impact because of their dilution. Even though the staging was very good, Cheek By Jowl’s Macbeth unfortunately tended toward the Reader’s Digest Condensed Shakespeare. For that reason, though I think this was a “good enough” show, I really think it’s missable, fine if you want to get in some Macbeth (and probably far less painful than The Gods Weep) or have a free night, but, well, just basically good and competent, and maybe nice as an example of doing a good production without any props. Just don’t have anything to drink beforehand – two hours straight is still a bit much to not have a chance to run to the toliet.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 19th, 2010. This show continues through April 10th. For more information on Cheek by Jowl, please see their website. SansTaste saw things differently. For more reviews of this show, please see