You know, sometimes, the best solution really is to kill the King. At least that’s what Ma and Pa Ubu have been convinced of by the Prime Minister of Pooland and his lackeys who need the King overthrown so they can make more money through their mining empire. What they didn’t anticipate was Pa Ubu caring even less for his fellow humans than they do.
Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, on which writer and director Richard Hilliar’s adaptation is based, was a late-19th century comic satire written in defiance of prevalent cultural and social norms and was considered a precursor to 20th century Modernism, Surrealism, and Absurdism. Building on themes from the comic grotesque, the play combined elements of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet with crude and obscene language and characters in a confronting satire of royal power and greed. UBU: A Cautionary Tale of Catastrophe used the same basic outline of the original but with a marked thematic shift towards the contemporary concern of climate catastrophe.
Ma (Emily Elise) and Pa Ubu (Angus Evans) are typical civilians of Pooland who are one day approached by the Prime Minister Fuller (Tristan Black) and his sidekicks tv personality Miss Information (Rachael Colquhoun-Fairweather) and corrupt scientist Murray (Shae Russon) with a proposition. If Ubu kills the King (Idam Sondhi) and his whole family, then Ubu can be King and Fuller will take care of all the complicated and boring business of running the country. Things immediately go wrong when Ubu takes a liking to fair Princess Munt (Nicole Wineberg) and decides to spare her and then when he allows young Prince Bitchard (Gideon Payten-Griffiths) and the Queen (Amy Brooks) to escape. But that isn’t the worst part because, as Ubu grows increasingly greedy for more money and jewels, he willingly sacrifices all the resources in the land, from draining all the lakes to falling all the forests, in pursuit of wealth, thus exacerbating the already problematic Great Heatening. The surviving citizens of Pooland try everything to convince Ubu to stop the destruction including a rousing public debate between Bitchard and the Ubus, but nothing can slow the momentum of environmental collapse.
Hilliar’s new script is brash and abrasive, inundated with jokes about excrement, and with extreme satirical caricatures navigating their own ignorance, hubris, and greed. Hilliar accompanies works like Megan Wilding’s 2021 staging of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King in a recent trend of reworking older dramatic texts about power for the modern context where the dynamics seem very much the same. [Note: UBU was originally staged in 2019 at the Bordello Room.] At the same time, Hilliar places Ubu Roi amongst a specifically Australian theatrical tradition of violence, disgust, and ineffectual hope akin to modern classics from Patrick White and David Williamson. In the opening scene of Ma and Pa, after a Punch and Judy-style puppet show preamble, the two bicker and laugh uproariously with the kind of crass grotesquery of White’s the Ham Funeral. But soon these ocker nobodies have all the power at their fingertips and they squander it, turning the world from the shiny, distracting destruction of the Prime Minister’s imagination into a squalid and unashamedly disgusting mess.
The performances across the cast were polished with a real commitment to visceral distaste. Evans was threatening and unhinged in his savage portrayal of Pa Ubu while his opposite in Elise’s Ma had a cold brutality akin to a Miss Trunchbull but who terrorises adults. The entire production was built around their specific brand of barbarity. Black’s Prime Minister was slick and snake-like with Miss Information and Murray adding a kind of alternative Lazy Town spirit with their corruption and betrayal. The shrimpy little Prince Bitchy was a crowd favourite as played by Payten-Griffiths, who really came into his own in his lanky physicality and convincing archaic vocabulary. None of the characters were likeable for one reason or another but the actors’ commitment to their bold and exaggerated characterisations was arresting.
Hilliar’s ambition with his adaptation and direction simply wouldn’t have come off without a similarly ambitious production design that created a transportive experience on the small KXT stage. Set and prop designer Ash Bell painted the floor and walls with an Alice in Wonderland tiled pattern for an immediately disorientating visual display populated with clever cardboard accents of shields, weapons, and ghostly spectres. Tanya Woodland then amplified the absurdity with a combination of classic clown makeup and Victorian era costuming, themes which Tegan Nicholls continued through the sound design that incorporated grand classical and operatic pieces. Over all of that, Ryan McDonald cast his technicolour lighting design that at times felt inspired by video game aesthetics with flashes of red signalling lethal wounds and at others incorporated alternating colour shows akin to a 90s roller rink. The production’s aesthetic, while also similar to the arts and crafts stylings of Wilding’s Exit the King, was both more brazen and more refined for an overall highly considered and professional design.
In Pooland, it’s the choice between two evils, but the question for the audience is how closely this view, or this cautionary tale, maps onto the real world. Because as the satire progressed, becoming darker, bleaker, more violent, the earnestness of the metaphor grew in equal measure until Princess Munt was summoning the forces of hope in a direct address to the audience about individual responsibility for climate action. This was the double-edged sword UBU wielded, and one perhaps unique to the Australian context, of creating a pointedly activist satire without becoming preachy and alienating. How Hilliar navigated this included the use of meta-referential song and repeated in-built concerns from the characters about the “optics” of environmentalism. Whether or not this was convincing or effective, it did provide a slightly shifted tone for climate activist art where the information isn’t new and there’s a sense of repetitive resignation in saying it because, while we must be reminded of the currently unfolding catastrophe, this play is unlikely to be the catalyst for change. The trajectory of Pooland is bleak because ours is.
Be forewarned, UBU is intense, unlikeable, and repellent, but it has interesting and challenging things to say about climate activism and Australian theatre with a highly ambitious approach that is at the very least impressive and at the most inflammatory.
UBU: A Cautionary Tale of Catastrophe is running at Kings Cross Theatre from May 18th – 28th
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