King Ubu is one of those shows that’s legendary in theatrical and artistic circles.
Debuting as a five-act play in Paris in 1896, it is widely considered revolutionary parody of Macbeth and a precursor to many modernist forms of theatre that followed (we could give you the whooooole history, but if you’re interested, Google it).
Townsville’s Todd Barty has now written his own adaptation, and we caught up for a chat about what to expect from this bizarre and unmissable production by Full Throttle Theatre, which will finally open this week after months of COVID-induced delay.
HUXLEY: Can you give me a bit of an overview of King Ubu, I know it’s a monster of a plot.
TODD: It is! It is about a fat, odious, cowardly General called Ubu who is really only interested in you know, serving his most banal needs. And he is nagged by his equally repellent, shrewish and wicked wife, Ma Ubu into killing the royal family and taking the throne of the imaginary country they live in. After he does that, he betrays his key co-conspirator, he goes onto kill all the nobles and judges and influential people in the country, and takes power for himself and his crones. Very soon he is besieged by an invasion by a foreign army, which his co-conspirator had been involved in plotting, and a rebellion from within lead by the surviving Princess of the country too.
It’s some heavy stuff, but it is a farce isn’t it?
Yes, it’s played out as a sort of demented puppet show with lots of sort of infantile and coarse language thrown around – really it’s almost like a Shakespeare play performed by demented dolls.
What appealed most to you about writing, directing and starring in this adaptation?
Well it’s a Classic. It’s one of those plays that artists know about and people then know about the artists that know about it. It’s been influential across a lot of styles: Visual artists like Picasso and Miro were influenced by Alfred Jarry, the guy who wrote it. It’s also influential on Theatre of the Absurd, on Symbolism, Surrealism, Dada, Theatre of Cruelty. All of these things have sort of taken influence from Ubu and from the works of Alfred Jarry, and even if people don’t know about that, they’ll know about the things that are influenced by it. I did a short version of it years and years ago in my youth and always felt that I could do something more with it, do something better and wanted to come back to it eventually.
So what has been the focus for you in revisiting it this time as a full length play, and as your own adaptation?
We always have that imbalance of a lot more actresses available than actors, so I have sort of re-gendered various roles to accommodate that, not that it’s a really a difficulty with having cross-casting in King Ubu because it’s so highly unrealistic anyway, but we’ve sort of had to work in parallels to realise what’s really going on with the characters and their needs, because their needs are very real, but also we have to layer on this bizarreness of the movement. We’ve taken inspiration from wind-up toys, from marionettes, from jerky old stop-motion animation and used various sorts of movement-centred approaches and training methods to discover the particular way of moving that the characters have.
I imagine that’s lead to some interesting rehearsals?
Yes! In the early stages, and as we get the moments right in each scene, we make each other laugh a lot, which is a good sign hopefully that will translate to the audience.
And I believe we’ll see the return of a local legend in the role of Ma Ubu?
Suzy Gilmour is back. She’s lived in Townsville before and was the Artistic Director of La Luna Youth Arts for a while, she was General Manager at Full Throttle for a while in the early days, too. I heaved a sigh of relief in a way when I saw her on the audition list because I knew I had somebody who was able to play Ma Ubu and who would be willing to play this incredible, grotesque character. Suzy is a fantastic person to bounce on and off in rehearsals.
There are also lots of people that I have worked with and some new faces that have quite a lot of experience. Jacinta Ryan is one of the more senior people involved who is great to have on board in something so bizarre. It’s kind of surreal having Jacinta in the cast and having her move around like a puppet and do comic fight scenes and things. It seems so different from what we see Jacinta do normally.
Finally, what should audiences expect from King Ubu?
It’s a lot of fun, it’s sort of the whole style of it this kind of punk-post-apocalyptic Punch and Judy show and it’s full of the unexpected. In spite of it seeming quite bizarre, really it’s very, very funny. There’s not a scene that isn’t sort of bizarre and hilarious – as we discover the scenes and put them into motion, there is not one that’s not coming to life without being bizarre and hilarious at the same time.
Don’t miss Full Throttle Theatre Company’s King Ubu from 28 October – 7 November at the Courthouse Theatre