Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Ubu The King – let battle commence in this absurd disrupted food court (Tinderbox at The MAC)

The normal rules of theatre suggest keeping the audience in rows, keeping the action on the stage, and avoiding mess. But the first rule of Tinderbox Theatre Company is to tear up normality and challenge comfortably-held beliefs.
“Kill the King and take the crown for yourself”

Ubu The King adapts of Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi which was first performed in Paris in 1896 and was followed by a riot. A vulgar kitchen porter stages a management coup and takes over a patisserie kitchen. Soon the other staff who supported his popular uprising realise that he is making empty promises and behaving like the show horse head chef he emasculated and replaced.

The absurdist nature of Jarry’s work is quickly apparent as kitchen utensils are repurposed as puppets, masks and an army of forks. Ciaran Bagnall’s set has the air of a cooking school installed in an abattoir with stainless steel worktops sitting on top of a distressed metal floor, enclosed inside a heavy translucent plastic curtain.

Rhodri Lewis plays Ubu, a disruptive upstart with a grizzly sense of comedy who begins by acting the lig and playing up to the audience of thirty sitting on raised platforms around the food court. Soon less savoury bullying behaviour is on display. Meanwhile Julie Lewi, Jo Donnelly and Claire Connor are kneading dough, whisking ingredients and sifting cocoa powder over buns while Tony Flynn minces around with a clipboard playing head chef.

The dialogue is sparse and sometimes the detail of what is said – along with the lyrics of Katie Richardson’s bespoke music – gets lost in the general melee of the hellish kitchen. Yet director Patrick J O'Reilly makes sure that the choreographed dance sequences and physicality of the clowning wordlessly imparts the changing power relationships that drive this demonstration of brutalist anarchy and extreme behaviour.

It reminded me of a third form history lesson in which ‘Red Ken’ meandered away from the First World War curriculum to instead explain the spectrum of political activity and opinion, from far left to far right. The workers feel that “when we are together we are unstoppable” but they fail to appreciate how they are being manipulated (including celebrating previous conflicts when the new leader is under threat). Under the horseshow theory, sometimes those on the far left become bedfellows of the far right.

Wearing similar protective clothing to the cast to shield us from spillage or flying ingredients, the audience are invited to vocally collaborate and become complicit in condoning the bullying and intimidation happening feet away from our ringside seats.

We realise that what is being acted out is merely a representation of the real life power games that continue to dominate modern office life, churches, politics and communities across Northern Ireland and beyond. Ubu could be Donald Trump. Equally he could be Arlene Foster, Mary-Lou McDonald or Jeremy Corbyn. Or maybe he’s you … or me.

Ubu the King is experimental. During the 70-minute performance, there are moments of entertainment among the more absurd and confusing scenes. It’s not a terribly satisfying piece of theatre – I doubt it even intends to be – but it certainly succeeds in being thought-provoking.

Continues in The MAC until Saturday 23 February.

Photo credit: Ciaran Bagnall

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