Vladimír Mikulka: Ubu te king of the newspaper

Divadlo Na zábradlí, a leading Prague theatre house, organised a minifestival called Ubu weekend. The date was chosen very appropriately: the last February days are still remembered as an anniversary of the coup d’état in which the Czech communists seized power in 1948.
Vladimír Mikulka

Sixty-three years after this, a weekend was dedicated to the famous Alfred Jarry’s character, the half grotesque – half terrifying symbol of dullness, unscrupulous yearning for power, brutal cowardice or blatant greed and lust. On Friday 25th everything started by the giant stage reading of the play (almost fifty performers were involved), the next day’s schedule included projection of the legendary sixties’ production Ubu the Father (directed by Jan Grossman in the very same playhouse), a student performance entitled Ubu Antichrist and the Ubu variation from the current repertoire of the Na zábradlí, called Ubu se baví (Ubu Is Having Fun). However, the most attractive item on the weekend list was the guest appearance of Budapest theatre Maladype with Zoltán Balázs’ production Übü király.

The quartet of the Maladype actors manages to go through almost all the lines of Jarry’s dark comedy, in spite of the fact that the production does not have too much in common with a traditional narration of the story. The characters crawl up and down the huge pile of big bundles of newspaper, and the daily press is the only stage property (used with huge amount of imagination). Together with the occasional usage of glue, scissors and a couple of wooden skewer, to be precise. Everything needed is manufactured on the spot, right in front of the audience, from the repugnant feast of Mother Ubu and to a warrior horse of her overweight husband.

Thanks to this, the scene in which the characters of noblemen and financiers are murdered by the king Ubu, has got a somehow surreal atmosphere. The front pages of several Czech newspapers were used to represent the executed characters, but the choice of the victims was absolutely random: those celebrities were slaughtered whose pictures appeared in the nearest issue. As far as I remember, the succession was like this: a football player (the defender of Sparta Prague, known for his brutality), two soap opera actors and finally a radical leftist performer. The picture of the last was, very significantly, black and white.The actors turned one character into another steadily and without any visible divides (only Ubu himself was played by the same person all the time), the changes in the environment happened with the same easiness. The actors just turned back and started to talk for completely different characters. Neither a problem for anyone on stage nor in the audience: Maladype plays Ubu as a radical farce that does not pay too much attention to the subtlety. Even verbal improvisation was used now and then, a rather difficult task for the Hungarians in front of the Czech audience. Sometimes the job was done by using basic English, sometimes the interpreter was openly asked to help by someone from the cast („Tanja, now do translate, please” was an often repeated line). Couple of words were said in broken Czech, and the spectators also appreciated some strenuous reading from the local newspapers.

The main strength of the production – but its main weakness too – is the invariably furious tempo of the whole show. It is OK for forty minutes, not just OK, it is very pleasant and very funny, but the repetition of the same principle grows rather tiresome towards the end. You could feel it all around the house – not only you, but almost everybody around simply seemed to be worn out. The Jarry’s play itself lacks its initial zest in the last third, but this was not the main reason, I believe. Had Maladype’s Übü király been one third shorter, it could have been a really great performance. Nevertheless, it was a rather pleasant evening anyway. Nonappearance was not a personal cultural tragedy, just a mistake: you cannot see such a theatre piece very often in Prague.

Based upon the article from Lidové noviny (4th February).

Vladimír Mikulka: Ubu te king of the newspaper