Splendid Productions: UBU

Freya Burgess (Y13), Isobel Turner (Y11), Annabelle Gerdes (Y11)
Friday, December 18, 2020

A politically charged, unique theatrical experience bound to reel students in until the curtains close

 King Ubu
King Ubu

Ben Hales

We were fortunate enough to watch one of the first performances of UBU, Splendid Productions’ adaptation of the classic story, performed in October at Kennet School. This performance was highly engaging and memorable due to its enlightening nature of exposing current political situations.

The narrative followed the manipulative tyrant dubbed ‘Ubu’, whose state is initially left to the audience's interpretation. Upon the arrival of a journalist, Ubu explains his forceful seizing of power and questionable methods of ruling. This is demonstrated by his involvement in a scripted retelling of his life alongside the less enthusiastic journalist.

Ubu's character captivated us and, through his reflection of familiar mannerisms that we could subconsciously link to current political figures, we were encouraged to form a series of questions that gave insight to the current state of global politics. Ubu sported an oversized, red tie reflective of Donald Trump's peculiar dress sense, cleverly illustrated the quirks of our very own ‘BoJo’ and raised our suspicions of various dictators including the Brazilian leader Getúlio Vargas.

Kerry Frampton and Scott Smith's performances brought the characters to life, amusing the audience in the obscurity while also being a little unnerving and off-putting. The comedic characterisation heightened our fascination with Ubu, thus making us the perfect subjects for manipulation.

It was interesting to see the adaptation in response to COVID-19 and how they utilised the genre of Epic Theatre effectively to maintain social distancing in a way that had no major impact on our understanding of characters’ relationships. A performance that could have originally involved lots of physical movements now became limited in this aspect due to the current circumstances. Despite these restrictions, the play was conducted to disguise these changes while engrossing us in moments of witty audience interaction and ideas concerning deeper political messages. Unusual for Splendid, it was interesting to observe that the fourth wall was only broken by one character: Ubu. Our attention was therefore drawn to this character which enabled the audience to be bewitched through his devious charm.

After the curtains closed, we were grateful for the opportunity of a question and answer session with the cast. As drama and theatre students, we often feel obliged to review performances by speculating on the intentions of the production company. However, the discussions that took place reminded us to explore our own responses to the show. Many of our questions regarding the choices made by the director were met with an answer of ‘whatever you think about it is probably right’. From this response, we were encouraged to trust our own judgement and we became aware that the role of theatre is to influence our outlook and broaden our perspective, rather than insist the audience should all have a particular viewpoint.

A question was raised about the decision to use only house lights and limited sound effects, to which the actors responded by stating that having the audience lit creates equality between the cast and audience. This strengthened the ethos of Splendid that political theatre should be inclusive of its audience's ideas and opinions.

Collectively, there were moments of satisfying realisation throughout the discussion, where our intuitions about certain aspects of the play were confirmed. When asked why Ubu kept telling us to remain in a trance, Frampton suggested that Ubu represented political rulers of today who aim to silence those who are ‘woke’ in order to avoid whistleblowing about their supposedly corrupt leadership. The general agreement from the audience promoted the clarity of Splendid's central theories that are embedded in their production.

Additionally, the Q&A was useful due to the reinforcement of the company's values as educators. There was a sense of the actors pleading with us to continue catechizing those in power, acting as advocates for our generation as it begins to have a larger influence in society. We were inspired to consider the impacts of political leaders’ bigotry on the lives of the public simply by questioning who gains from their decisions.

It was intriguing to be part of a conversation which sparked curiosity and evoked our interests in such a vast range of topics, including radicalisation, patriarchy, the media, and reactions to the coronavirus pandemic. One answer that stands out for many of us was Frampton's comparison of Ubu's behaviour to ‘grooming’. The shock from the audience was tangible; none of us expected to be so easily swept up in that act of exploitation.

The impression is given that with each performance, the experience differs for both the audience and the actors, as there is no predictability in how the actors will respond to the audience and vice versa. Therefore, we cannot recommend UBU enough for a unique theatre event bound to solidify your perspective on current political affairs.

Splendid Productions is now taking bookings for UBU in schools up until April 2021. A performance plus a 1.5hr workshop, or a performance plus an optional post-show discussion is £600 + VAT, while a performance plus a 4hr workshop is £1,100. Fill in a form at www.splendidproductions.co.uk/productions/