Jarry’s original play – which infamously begins with Ubu mispronouncing the word “shit” in French – provoked a riot in 1896 and closed after its opening performance.
It has since been recognised as an important precursor to modernism and absurdist theatre, and has gained fresh currency since the election of President Trump.
Certainly, theatrically educated commentators haven’t been slow to discern a case of life imitating art. Childish, reckless, greedy, boorish and vain – in short, a colossal walking id who’s in every way unsuited to power – Ubu almost spookily prefigures the “infant-in-chief”. Even their entrances echo each other: Ubu mispronounces merde, Trump tweets “covfefe”. The list of resemblances goes on.
And while Donald Trump isn’t mentioned in this version of King Ubu, the puppetry manages a sly bit of one-upmanship: Ubu is much bigger, and even more orange, than the US President.
The show does weave in contemporary political satire with an Australian focus, largely through songs, but it keeps the bones of Jarry’s plot (Ubu is essentially a parody of Macbeth) intact.
And Ma and Pa Ubu’s rise to power, with the aid of a treacherous nobleman, is spectacularly silly and strange. The couple strides through the audience and onto the stage merrily abusing each other – think a mix of Roald Dahl’s The Twits and a Punch and Judy Show – and once they work out who the King of Tasmania actually is (an inflatable swan, it turns out), they usurp the throne and subject the state to disturbing misrule.
Meanwhile, the 14-year-old prince whose parents have been murdered escapes into the wilderness and, in the spirit of Greta Thunberg, assembles an army of children to overthrow the tyrants.
Songs are peppered throughout, some with sharply satirical lyrics. One lampoons Tasmanian politicians from Bob Brown to Jacqui Lambie and works in the surprise resignation this week of Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman. Another – a love duet between the Ubus – features the line: “We’ll always stay wrong as the world goes to the right.” Ah, romance.
And the musicians create a triumphantly chaotic atmosphere of absurdity and mischief, with musical director Brian Ritchie tacking on a cheeky arrangement of Violent Femmes’ Blister In The Sun after curtain call.
Somehow, director Sam Routledge holds this massive event together. With the cast of thousands uniting behind the grotesquely heightened comedy and an elaborate pageantry that at times threatens to turn into a super-eisteddfod, King Ubu is community theatre at its most inclusive, spectacular and ambitious.
The writer travelled to Launceston as a guest of the festival.