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Ubu Roi

Ubu Roi Review and Interview with Camille Cayol

By Margot Cadic

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry is seen by many as one of the more scandalous pieces of theatre writing from the late 19th century. After a sold out show last year and some great write ups by theatre critics, Declan Donnellan’s version of Ubu Roi returns to the Barbican.

Picture the typical ‘bourgeois’ dinner: full of restraint and all the social conventions which go with it. Suddenly, everything changes. The imagination of a young boy named Arthur, the son of the two hosts of the small gathering, alters the mood of the once conformist dinner. Still in a dining room setting, the dinner guests morph into tyrannical, rude and excessive characters, with no care in the world about social norms and moral behaviour. The audience is projected into Arthur’s adolescent vision that begins to imagine his parents as totalitarian and power-hungry individuals who seek to establish their own dictatorship in Poland. They become Pa and Ma Ubu, who have successfully managed to establish their own reign of terror. This proceeds to a display of deprived beings, with a series of events that portray some of human nature’s most impulsive and immoral traits.

When entering the theatre, the stage is already set with a luxurious yet neutral living room and with an elegant dinner table with attractive decorations. One of the actors, a teenage boy, is sitting on the couch playing with a video camera. Once the play begins an unsettling yet humorous mood is set as the boy Arthur makes perplexing close-ups of nostrils, a toilet seat and a Polish vodka bottle which all contrast with the refined ambiance of the Parisian flat. Little do we know that all these symbols are clues of what is yet to come. Each detail connects to the imagination of the boy who creates the story of Ubu Roi, using his parents and their guests as characters of his tale. The audience then sets off on a tumultuous journey, from the accession to the throne by Pa Ubu, to his downfall, all the while being reminded of the ‘reality’ of the quiet and superficial bourgeois dinner taking place. Murder, greed, and lust all interlink into a physical performance. Cleverly constructed, the everyday tools such as buckets, toilet scrubs, shopping bags, and kitchen instruments are used as crowns, death traps and weapons.

With regards to the cast, they all show great energy and vitality. In addition to Christophe Gregoire and Camille Cayol, who superbly manage to change at ease from polite hosts to debauched and greedy individuals, a special mention should be made of Xavier Boiffier as Bordure. The cast’s uninhibited performance succeeds in portraying the dramatic contrast between a world of civilised elegance and a world of chaos and exaggeration.

The originality of the teenage perspective, added to the two parallel dimensions of a civilised portrayal of upper class society and a deprived and immoral world of tyranny, Donnellan effectively revives Jarry’s work with dynamism and innovation, with the support of a cast who offer a superb performance.


Camille Cayol Interview

Camille Cayol, who plays Ma Ubu, gives us more insight into her character and the dynamic of the play.

FranceInLondon: How did the project come about, and how and why did you get involved?

Camille Cayol: This project was born in Declan Donnellan’s head; how it got there I have no idea. I guess it’s part of the mystery of his creativity. I had already worked with him on several occasions in the past such as 'Andromaque' de Jean Racine in French and in ‘The 3 Sisters’ of Anton Tchekkov in Russian as a replacement for Olga. It really came from the fact that we have a great artistic compatibility and entente, as well as from working together several years ago.      

FIL: Could you tell us more about your acting career?

CC: I studied in Russia at the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique of Moscow (MKHAT) in the class of Oleg Tabakov. In my 3rd year I started working at the Theatre Tobakov. Overall, I worked for 12 years in Russia, and that’s where my career mostly developed. I returned to France for non-professional reasons but I actually met Declan through my work in Russia because he loves Russian theatre and he is very close to Russian actors. That’s how we decided to meet and collaborate.

FIL: What is it like to work with Declan Donnellan and be directed by him?

CC: It’s a real gift to be able to work with him. Firstly because his creativity is extremely powerful. He loves actors and builds a strong relationship with them. It’s mostly due to the fact that we trust each other. He has a great imagination and is able to involve us on his train of thought and help us experience things we have never experienced. Declan trusts us and we trust him enormously. It’s a real opportunity for an actor to work with a director who is so powerful.

FIL: In what way is this version of Ubu Roi different from those which preceded it?

CC: It’s difficult because I haven’t seen many of them. I’d say that this version really focuses on the child’s perspective. Jarry was 15 when he wrote the play and Declan really emphasises this point in the play. This version also portrays the fantasies that a child may have towards his parents. I think that it’s the focus on the child’s perspective which makes this version so original.

FIL: Tell us more about your character Ma Ubu. She is described by many as a manipulating individual who feels no remorse. Do you agree with this description?

CC: It’s true that Pa and Ma Ubu, like the other characters in the play, are very honest and crude in their manner of expression. They do not deal with the social conventions we are used to. We could say that there is no filter of civilisation for them which explains their behaviour. Both their mind-sets are very basic: ‘I want, I take’, ‘the other has more, I will kill him’. This may all be excessive and wrong from a moral point of view, but from the perspective of the person playing the character it’s different. For me it’s a direct approach into getting what you want, so that if I am jealous, I eliminate the source of my jealousy. We could also say they are people who perceive no filter of education. In a way they are very childish. At schools we can witness children acting that way. Parents and the education framework establish limits to some uncivil behaviour children have, and overall teach them the moral structure and behaviour. However in Ubu Roi no character has this structure.

FIL: How would you describe the dynamic in the Pa and Ma Ubu relationship?

CC: They are clearly a complementary couple. Of course there is violence but I think they are complimentary in the fact that what one of them lacks of the other brings it out or compensates. I would describe their relationship as a contract of convenience rather than a relationship of love. They are united as a means to an end as they both want to acquire power. The characters being as they are, are incapable of truly feeling love. Rather than love it should be seen as possession.

FIL: Last year the play was received with great success by the public in London and sold out. Why do you think it attracts London theatre-goers so much?

CC: It’s hard to speak on the public’s behalf but I have to say that the first time Declan told us we were doing this play we were all a bit surprised. A lot of people in France know Alfred Jarry through the expression ‘merdre’ and the use of rude language which was a scandal at the time. Jarry is also remembered for his portrayal of these characters that were totalitarian and excessive in everything. However when looking at it from nowadays’ perspective the language used in the play is more complex and it is difficult for most people to understand. Due to this I wasn’t totally convinced it would be as successful among the public. We were all glad that Declan had decided that the next play he would direct would be a French play, but none of us were particularly enthusiastic about this particular one at first. However, what turned out to be very interesting is that through Declan’s vision he manages to modernise the play in such a way that there is an emphasis on a child’s perspective and the public is far more receptive of it. The portrayal of the change from childhood to adolescence and the fantasies that result from the process are demonstrated and is a central focal point of the play. In regards to the reasons why this may be popular with audiences, it could be the fact that there is no judgement. We portray the upper class and the ‘bourgeoisie’ with good taste, and no wickedness. Although the characters turn out to be greedy, selfish and depraved, they are all human impulses that we all endure and try to contain whilst staying civilised. It’s entertaining to show this enjoyment of not caring about moral limits or the right etiquette. We take a lot of pleasure acting this way as adults who are used to having responsibilities and a moral framework, so maybe the audience likes seeing us behave in this way.

FIL: Can you tell us more about the process of preparation for the play or any memorable moments during rehearsal?

CC: Declan puts a lot of emphasis on improvisation during the first stage of rehearsal. The feature that is of primordial importance for Declan is definitely the atmosphere of a bourgeois dinner, so we worked a lot regarding this aspect. He kept repeating us that this was the focal point of the whole play and to never overlook it, because it is around this that everything else evolves. The idea of bourgeois dinner where no transgressions are allowed and everyone is trying to please everyone, and to never offend. There is no conflict, everyone always agrees, it is really to portray this bourgeois scenery and then contrast it with the violence and the lack of limits.

FIL: What is it like performing live at the Barbican? Is the experience different to any other venues you have played in?

CC: We played here last year at the Barbican, but we also performed at Guildford, Cambridge, Oxford etc. The Barbican is an incredible place to perform in. We are going to perform on the big stage which is really impressive but we manage to maintain the proximity with the audience by performing upstage. We all enjoy the play, even though it is physically extremely demanding. But we are happy to be back together as a group on this stage. Also, it’s always great knowing that Declan, who we all admire and appreciate, is from the UK, and that we are in some way performing in his home country. We love our director. We are in love with him professionally. It’s important because he gives it back to us and the bond of trust is strengthened.

First impressions after the play:

“Extraordinary. I haven’t seen anything like it!”

“Full of energy, sharp and inventive. They make great use of props.”

“Very strange and different, but overall I liked it. The contrast between the stage at the start and at the end of the play was great.”

“Clever, but went on for too long. Some parts dragged a bit. Could have been shorter at the end and sharper.”

“Funny and very surprising, with a great choreography.”

“Completely crazy.”


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