'Breathe in its bizarre and beautiful madness'Kalvin Schmidt-Rimpler Dinh

You enter a room, and sit in front of a stage. You have paid a little money, and expect to be entertained. The bargain is made; your ‘experience’ is assured. But what if those expectations were wrong, and what if you were incorrect? From the opening moments of Ubu Roi, Cambridge Experimental and BATS’s absurdist production, the resultantly strange reality was made perfectly clear to its audience.

As we enter the lobby of the Fitzpatrick Hall, the stewards inform us that we will need to wear a pink poncho and bear a phallus inscribed in biro on our hands to enter. Across the gloom of the Fitzpatrick Hall, thumping, sentimental rock ‘n’ roll assaults the ears, and a pair of stewards in drag suggest we don’t go behind the thick, black curtain. But we do; we expect, after all, to be entertained. 

Inside, a smartly dressed rocker mumbles into the mic while sipping from a bottle of beer, while his backing band, stripped to their underwear and completely expressionless, play to a stupefied crowd. The audience must stand, or, if they need to sit, enthrone themselves atop a plinth, over which a banner declaring “Help the Aged” is hung. At the deafening climax to this performance, our singer smashes his crumpled guitar and throws the neck into the crowd, into which the audience have now been pulled by the chorus. Scrapping for this relic of their demented “Disco”, one gangly, wild-eyed member of the gathering wrests it from the others and screams in triumph.

This is the titular Pa Ubu (Henry Baxter), captain of the guard. Bending, thrusting, sneering and screeching in an incomprehensible French accent, Ubu’s rise to power will lead him through everything from Shakespearean tragedy to surreal disco raves, in which the audience are quite literally forced to dance (an experience I found infinitely more enjoyable and much less disturbing than an evening in Cindies).

Baxter’s performance is putrescent, vile and posturing. He calls up, one by one, the “nobs”, the “judges”, and the “bankers”, sending each to die in a gloomy cavern behind the hall as his hyper-masculine autocracy reaches its terrifying and bathetic apex. In all this he is assisted by Ma Ubu, played with aplomb by Grainne Dromgoole. While Ubu rages, she simultaneously taunts and encourages him, at one point taking out her pent-up sexual aggression on an upended shopping trolley. At the moment of Ubu’s defeat in battle, we are assaulted by a thrashing, pounding grunge track, as Schnell Friedrich (Joscelin Dent-Pooley, billed as “Noise-maker” of the production) quite literally bares all, howling into his microphone long after the audience are almost knee deep in dead bodies.

The broiling psychosis that surges forth from the room transfixes its witnesses. Eyes wide, mouths agape, they cannot comprehend what is happening, and why. The situation is funny, but this is no comedy: this is the foul, noxious humour that afflicts the most despicable parts of us. Alfred Jarry would be proud to see his masterpiece defaced, defiled, and truly cherished, as it has been by Cambridge Experimental, who on the basis of a handful of concerts and a performance of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape have swiftly established themselves as one of the most vital and prescient of the artistic factions on the theatrical scene in Cambridge.

If you needed your faith restored in the power of Cambridge’s intellectual tradition to foster truly creative work, then look no further than Ubu Roi. This is better than a play that’s written well, or acted impeccably. It’s a production that makes you want to write, makes you want to act. My cynicism and petty critic’s foibles defeated, I departed from the theatre, both exhausted and enthralled by the spectacular intimacy of Peter Price and Kalvin Dinh’s direction. Not for everyone, and probably not for anyone, I urge you to see it, and breathe in its bizarre and beautiful madness

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