REVIEW: Ubu Roi

Glitter, nudity, drag and a revolving shopping trolly. Brace yourself.

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Cambridge Experimental are the Marmite of the Cambridge theatre scene: you either love them, or their appeal baffles you. I fell in love with them.

Ubu Roi is a rather difficult play to review. For a start, it left me speechless. And then there’s the fact that a large part of the play’s power lies in its shock value and element of surprise, which would then be ruined if I were to disclose all here.

What I will say is that Ubu Roi is an incredible piece of theatre. Expertly directed by Peter Price and Kalvin Schmidt-Rimpler-Dinh and produced by Vincent Hasselbach, with the sounds of the very talented lead musician or ‘noise-maker’ Joscelin Dent-Pooley, I can promise you it is like nothing you have ever seen before, certainly in Cambridge and possibly nowhere else either.

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So many edges

So what is the play really about? Ubu Roi is the first ever piece of absurdist theatre and roughly speaking, relates the story of Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu who plot the killing of the King of Poland in order to ascend to the throne of Baloney. However, to focus on this question is to miss the essence of the performance. It is an experience, a highly immersive one at that, and from start to finish you are plunged into a powerful and insane parallel universe.

The fun starts on arrival: a personalised penis is drawn on the back of your hand and you are dressed in a pink poncho. As you enter the performance space cast members sway to the music, played by Joscelin Dent-Pooley and his virtually naked backing band, and trample the debris strewn across the floor (including Babybel cheeses and pages torn from a Bible). The audience are invited to dance by beautiful men in drag and the atmosphere escalates into a warehouse rave, until all of a sudden the acting, or rather the performance art, is launched.

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Theatre or art or neither?

Henry Baxter as Pa Ubu sustained a fantastic and deranged energy throughout and Joel James, as Prince Anal, delivered an eerie and powerful soliloquy seated in a revolving shopping trolley. Shakespeare’s ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’, taken from Macbeth, was a clever addition to the script on behalf of the directors. Unfortunately, some of the supporting acting was slightly weak and the diction was at times poor, meaning that it was difficult to distinguish between real words and invented words. If anything though, the poor diction only contributed to the absurdity of the play. And besides, this performance is not about the words or the plot; it is about challenging the audience and our expectations.

And this they achieved with panache, aided by the impressive staging and use of space, lighting and props. One of Ubu Roi’s strengths is that you never know what to expect next and from which direction it will hit you, from said shopping trolley, a glitter storm and a violent and animalistic brawl, to being aggressively herded backstage only to be confronted with a pile of lifeless, blood-streaked bodies. This disturbing tableau, the sexuality, nudity and violence throughout are not for the faint-hearted.

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Not for the faint hearted Credit: Oliver Canessa

Embrace it, however: this is an ambitious project which has paid off brilliantly, Cambridge Experimental’s weirdest and the most wonderful to date.

There is a lot of fun to be had, both for performers and spectators alike. If you only experience one play this year, make it this one: it’s a complete eye-opener.

4.5/5 stars