In Alfred Jarry's satirical drama, Ubu Roi, a power hungry king and queen scheme and murder their way to power, which they then obliviously abuse, inflicting oppression, theft, and mass murder on their citizens. The French writer's1896 play is violent, vulgar, and funny, and is considered by many to be a precursor to absurdist theater. Cheek by Jowl's production, directed by Declan Donnellan, brings a new twist to the play, setting it in the middle of a bourgeois Parisian dinner party with a father, mother, teenage son, and three guests. Polite, subdued, and improvised sections at the dinner table are juxtaposed with the over-the-top dialogue and scenes from Jarry's play. In the context of the bourgeois dinner party, the Jarry dialogue is recast as a fantasy that's meant to reveal the true nature of adults, through the eyes of the teen, played by French actor Sylvain Levitte (who also plays the Jarry roles in the "fantasy" sequences, as does the rest of the cast). We spoke to Levitte about his experience preparing and performing Ubu Roi so far.

Lincoln Center: How familiar were you with Ubu Roi before this production?

Sylvain Levitte: I knew of the play, of course, but I hadn't seen it before taking on this role. I knew of a very famous production at the Nada Theatre in France, in which the main characters were fruits and vegetables, and also know of it as a play performed with marionettes. And of course I'm familiar with the adjective ubuesque, to describe someone with a decadent, anti-social personality.

LC: This production is unique in that rather than a straightforward version of Ubu Roi, it's a mix of reality and fantasy, a juxtaposition of improvised sections set at a civilized dinner party and the more intense scripted sections from Jarry's play. What's it like to switch between these two modes?

SL: It's interesting for actors. In the bourgeois dinner, the tone is chic and civilized, where everyone agrees with one another and there's no conflict. And in the straight-up Jarry sections, it's no holds barred, where the characters are overtly power-hungry, monstrous, and disgusting. We're interchanging between this polite and emotionless bourgeois dinner party and Jarry's play, with Jarry's words revealing the inner emotions of these people.

We worked a lot on the technique of passing from one mode to the other. In rehearsals with Declan, we started working on the bourgeois dinner play – we improvised dialogue around the weather outside, whether we were happier in the country or city. We were in improvisation mode all the time. Then we started working with choreographer Jane Gibson, which helped bring the monster out of us for the Jarry sections, a complete metamorphosis. Choreography is really important to differentiate the sections. For the dinner party sequences, we worked on the "civilized" body, which is to say a body that sits upright, with a calm, and soft voice, then something more extreme and outsized in terms of body movement and tone for the Jarry sections.

Jarry based the Ubu character on his high school physics teacher, while he was still a teenager? Did any of that inform your interpretation of your role?

I wasn't alive during Jarry's time, so I'll never know for sure, but with regards to adolescence, what we focused on was the typical teenage desire to be independent from one's parents. Arthur, the 14-year-old in the bourgeois piece, wants to criticize his parents, wants to show the rest of the world the real nature of his parents. It's a very adolescent tendency.

How is working with Declan different from working with a French director?

Declan looks at acting as a game. For a French actor, that's a huge pleasure – the body is used a lot more than with a French director. Declan is also really focused on the live aspect of theater, and encourages us to be fearless and constantly present, so we can engage the other actors in real time, as well as react when other actors engage us in real time. We're in this mode even when we're interacting with the audience. It's intense.

Declan looks at acting as a game. For a French actor, that's a huge pleasure – the body is used a lot more than with a French director.
Interview with Ubu Roi’s Sylvain Levitte
Photo: Johan Persson

LC: This is a French play that you've brought to many countries, and, thanks to the supertitles, people can understand it in their native languages. Has the audience reaction been different in other countries?

SL: Yes, it's fascinating and exhilarating to perform the piece around the world. In London, we had lively audiences that laughed a lot and were very much engaged. In Spain, audiences laughed a lot, too. It was touching and intense in Romania, where the country is still coming to terms with the Ceausescu dictatorship. The political aspect of the play came out in a strong way over there, since the piece is about a man and woman who take blood and anything else they can get from their country's citizens. There was less laughter, but also a bit of stupor in the face of things that are still really fresh there. It was beautiful to see the reaction in Romania.

LC: What are you planning on doing in New York while you're here?

SL: Probably all the touristy things, but I definitely want to go to back to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I adore Prospect Park. It's like Central Park, but less strict. It feels more alive.

Watch Cheek by Jowl's production of Ubu Roi on the free live stream at LC Live through Sunday, August 9.