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Ubu Roi is pretty good, if a little short
on 1 May 2017
As with most plays, I think Ubu Roi suffers quite a lot from being read as a script rather than watched. This is particularly noticeable in this instance, as any production of Jarry's work would likely derive much of its humour from the means in which they attempt to recreate some of the play's more ambitious scenes; and this, of course, is in addition to the loss of any other visual humour, the chemistry between well-rehearsed actors, and any sense of how lines were intended to be spoken. There are also some relatively lengthy segments in which characters simply describe through dialogue events which are meant to be taking place on stage: one imagines that a performance of the play would manage a dramatic improvement on the raw script by showing these instead of just spelling them out.
Otherwise, Ubu Roi is pretty good, if a little short. A couple of the lines manage to be very funny (A CLOWN makes a star turn in Act II), even in the emaciated script format, and where jokes don't quite hit it's easy to see how they'd be improved with the visual and physical additions the script obviously lacks. The only really poor scene is the long procession of unfortunates Ubu throws into the de-braining machine: this is meant to be an ad-libbed segment, but both examples of how it has been interpreted drag out the joke for far too long and never really manage to be funny. The plot (a pretty thin cod-Shakespeare tragedy) adequately serves its purpose of supporting the series of comic burlesques which are the main draw of Ubu Roi. Similarly, in keeping with the anti-play ethos, the characters run through various shades of one- and two-dimensionality, and don't show any development outside of dying. But it's pretty clear this was never meant to be an intellectually complex work.
I don't know any French, so I can't speak for the quality or purity of the translation, but the odd couple of lines do come off a bit awkwardly, and there are a fair number of typos. I'm also not sure I agree with the rendering of Ubu's name as 'Turd', but this doesn't have much impact on the enjoyment of the script itself.
I've knocked off a star for the slightly stilted effect that reading a play script gives, but, held to its own standards, Ubu Roi is good at what it intends to do, and Ubu himself has gained new relevance as a caricature in recent months. Ultimately, though, you've got to see it live. It'd be much better live.