Last week, I found myself in a tiny theatre surrounded by the scent of mud. It was 5pound Theatre's fantastic Ubu Roi, held in the intimate space at the Owl and the Pussycat, Richmond.
Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi is a deceptively difficult play to stage. Ubu is a despot in the making, with a cunning wife and slavish generals, but the play is also a lot more. There's a bit of Macbeth, a touch of Hamlet, and a whole lotta slapstick. On the page, it reads like the love-child of Shakespeare and Benny Hill.
5pound's production managed to bring out the 'lot more' part of the play. A mud pit confronts the audience as they settle in, with plastic sheets provided for the front row – 'You'll need it,' advised the front of house, and it was true.
I can't go far without mentioning the design of this show which is – not to be too fancy about it – superb. The mud pit is a brilliant touch, the obvious metaphor of Ubu's downfall standing in for props and set when needed. There are extra touches of bedsheet curtains to the sides and the back wall mural of classical figures with snouts. A single wooden box – which is, like the rest, covered in mud - forms the rest of the simple set.
The costumes are likewise a good fit for the theme. All characters are in variations of white underwear – long johns, leotards and shorts held up with greying braces. The gradual muddification of these greying whites is a source of fascination throughout the show. There are embellishments, too – monobrows, tufts of hair springing from facial moles, and other sources of hair. It's grotesque. It's wonderful.
Design doesn't make a show, though. Ubu could be a simple farce, but director Jason Cavanagh manages to bring out the poignant moments as well. As Prince Boggerlas, Colin Craig's moment with the ghost of his father is genuinely moving, as is the scene between the prince and his mother [Susanna Frith]. It's hard to draw out individual performances in this show, though, because the ensemble moves from character to character seamlessly.
Cavanagh has also managed to bring out the surprising connections to current Australian politics. As the show goes on the scent of mud fills the air. The audience has no choice but to share in the decay of Ubu's reign as Ubu concentrates only on his own political agenda, ignoring the events around him.
5Pound theatre's Ubu Roi brings out Ubu in all his gross animalism. It's exciting to see this level of detail and creativity on the small stage. This funny, muddy, gut-churning show deserves a second season. How much better would it be to see it on a large stage instead?