Antares celebrates the advent of pataphysical theater in Kuala Lumpur
When Alfred Jarry’s “pataphysical” play, Ubu Roi, opened in Paris in 1896, a riot broke out after the first word was uttered – or so the legend goes. In any case, the show was forced to close on the second night because even more pandemonium ensued.
The only thing that broke out at the end of the Malaysian premiere of Ubu Roi was riotous applause. It would appear that 106 years down the line, KL theatergoers have been well primed by recent history for the scatological humor and pungent, surrealistic satire that informs Jarry’s pioneering effort in a style of theater generally labeled “Absurdist.” (In any event, after Shahnon Ahmad’s excremental novel, no Malaysian is likely to get overly agitated at the mention of pschitt.)
Alfred Jarry has been hailed as the progenitor of an artistic tradition of inspired inanity that has spawned the illustrious likes of Ionesco, Beckett, Brecht, the Dadaists, the Surrealists, Charles Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, the Goons, Harold Pinter, The Bonzo Dog Trouser Experience, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Frank Zappa, Richard Lester, and Douglas Adams.
Jarry himself lived a brief, intense and utterly eccentric existence, after blowing his inheritance on absinthe, ether and opium. At the tender age of 34 he was on his deathbed, surrounded by a small group of friends and admirers. The philosopher-poet’s not-so-famous last words, according to an apocryphal account, were: “I need a toothpick.” This elegantly sums up Jarry’s pataphysical credo.
But what, exactly, is pataphysics? Jarry himself defined it as “the science of imaginary solutions” – which only serves to further obfuscate. However, it’s interesting to learn that the Ubu character had its origins in a schoolboy skit written by the 15-year-old Jarry to lampoon a particularly pompous and obnoxious pedagogue.
Derision and ridicule have traditionally been the weapons of a non-violent, oppressed intelligentsia against a cruel and stupid but privileged mediocracy. Those with sufficient insight to see through the wool pulled over our eyes by the puppet-masters and their spin-doctors invariably end up drinking hemlock like Socrates – or else they “lose their minds” like Nietzsche, Nijinsky, and Van Gogh. Alfred Jarry, whose pataphysical manifesto was a valiant attempt to laugh in the face of the false gods, Mammon and Moloch (read money and military might), perhaps succeeded in doing both.
In these apocalyptic times, pataphysics is one way we can cope with our own feelings of helplessness before the sheer imbecility, the intransigence, and the insatiable greed of our Ubuesque “leaders” and the insanity of their ego ambitions.
Ubu Roi was certainly a brilliant way for first-time stage director Paul Loosley to make a grand entrance on the local scene. As an award-winning commercial film director and creative consultant, Loosley brought with him a rich lode of nifty ideas, craftily implemented by a team of advertising professionals like costume designer Loh and production designer Lee Chuen Fai (with conceptual inputs from Loosley’s son Alexander, who majors in drama and stage design).
The director chose to stick pretty close to the text – inserting a bit of local color by throwing in some Cantonese and Malay dialogue. It would certainly have been more topical to rename Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu – Pak Ubi and Mak Ubi. King Wenceslas could have been rendered Raja Wheregotclass; Prince Boggerlas, Tunku Buggerlu; and Captain McNure, Kapitan Tahi. But, then, that might have brought it way too close to home. In any case, Loosley opted for a cartoon buffoon effect, emphasizing the more puerile aspects of Jarry’s work rather than his surreal sociopolitical commentary, thereby leaving the interpretation open to the audience and protecting the production from official censure.
The lavatory theme of the set was obviously inspired by the explosive first word of the play, Ubu’s favorite expletive: Pschitt! (A mime version of Ubu Roi directed by Milan Sladek in Köln back in the early 1990s opted for gigantic genitalia attached to Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu’s flesh-colored body stockings. Ubu’s throne was shaped like an enormous vulva, and the operatic “soundtrack” was created live by an a capella ensemble. Limitless are the ways in which to present Ubu, a play that resolutely refuses to take itself seriously, even though the subject matter is dead serious – based as it is on Shakespeare’s gothic tale of ambition, deceit, treachery and hubris, that so-called “Scottish play,” but set in Poland.)
The plum rôle of Ubu went to Ari Ratos, who did a thoroughly magnificent job. Jerrica Lai made a deliciously lewd and lascivious Ma Ubu; hers was a broad, uninhibited, and extremely physical interpretation that did not entirely ring true (she came across more as Cat Woman than another variant of the Lady Macbeth archetype), though her performance was admirable and brave. As I emerged from the Actors Studio Theatre at Plaza Putra, artistic director Joe Hasham and executive producer Faridah Merican, who were on hand to greet everyone, transformed momentarily into Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu – and I was reminded that Ubu is really all of US.
Bernie Chan was a delightful scream as Rosemund (ah, she’s such a joy to watch on stage) and Na’a Murad turned in a turdlike Captain McNure (but such is his easygoing charm, nothing he does is ever shitty). Gavin Yap was immensely lively as Prince Boggerlas and had no trouble winning over the audience, even disguised as a chicken. Dennis Leong was electrifying as Heads, and wonderfully weird at every turn. His counterpart, Tails, was played by Gan Hui Yee for the most part in impassioned and rapid-fire Cantonese.
As Gyron, Sham Sunder Binwani had enormous impact but his most impressive feat was portraying a whole procession of aristocrats despatched “down the hatch” by the monstrously tyrannical Ubu Roi. Mark Stephan Felix’s Wenceslas was rather camp and visually striking, though I felt the characterization wasn’t fully explored.
Indeed, there were many elements in the production that could have been played to the max – especially in view of the mounting geopolitical madness – but were instead merely milked for sensational or comic effect. However, seeing as how it was director Loosley’s maiden effort, much can be forgiven. Suffice for us to rejoice at and welcome the fresh inflow of new energy, resources and talent which promises more theatrical thrills further up the road.
Ever since I discovered Alfred Jarry and his Ubu plays in the early 1970s, I’ve been looking forward to seeing the advent of the pataphysical era in KL. Thirty years is a long wait, but it was well worth it.
27 October 2002