This review contains spoilers.
In 2010, it's difficult to avoid a profound - even a paralysing - pessimism. Everywhere you look, human greed and blind self-interest trump any other consideration. The so-called debate on climate change only demonstrates the hypnotic power of delusion and ignorance; the distortions of political spin and media white noise degrade our language, so that truthfulness is all but impossible or, where possible, inaudible; rationality is gobbled up by psychotic self-deception and spat out as mockery. The ideals of democracy are an illusion, a pantomime choreographed by Fox News and big business.
While the dance of pixels keeps our neurones dormant, behind the scenes we continue the biggest mass species extinction in 65 million years, and pursue pointless wars with deadlier and deadlier weapons that consume a staggering percentage of our increasingly scarce resources. We blindly condemn millions of our fellows to lives of unspeakable misery in the interests of the vampiric demigods of the human race, corporate shareholders. We are a toxic wasteland, a desert of the soul, a calamity.
I've sometimes thought the abiding spirit of our times might be Hamlet: there's a prophetic edge to his description of the skies as "a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours", after all. And how exquisitely he spits on the human promise, so teasingly present in us all, and which, for all the evidence against us, we are so loath to forgo!
What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.
Yet there's another, equally compelling figure who presides over our modernity: against Hamlet's fatal indecision, Alfred Jarry's obscene man of action, Ubu. "I make my fortune, snickersnack, then kill the whole world and buggeroff." You could emblazon that on the coat of arms of Dick Cheney: draft-dodging warmonger and former CEO of oil giant Halliburton, and as Vice President, the brains of the Bush administration. Also, someone whom even Henry Kissinger was moved to describe as "evil".
Which brings me to Fatboy, John Clancy's 2006 adaptation of Jarry's first play, Ubu Roi. It's the kind of play which makes you laugh all the way through, and leaves you with a kind of bracing blackness. Its absurdity and grotesqueness cut through cant and piety, and brutally reveal how bad things are. Because they really are as bad as all that. Probably worse. The laughter makes it possible to see it, albeit briefly; human beings, as the poet once said, cannot bear very much reality.
Clancy's adaptation is in the spirit of Jarry's play, but plays fast and free with the original to update Ubu to contemporary America (and by extension, the wealthy west - this is all performed in Australian accents, except for a wonderful speech that mashes some notorious presidential quotes). Fatboy (Daniel Frederiksen) is a man of insatiable appetite: he literally devours money, to the continual despair of his wife Fudgie (Olga Makeeva). In the first act, after their obligatory trading of insults, she sends him out into the world to find a job while Fudgie, a woman of insatiable appetites herself, seduces a prospective tenant (Adam Pierzchalski). Fatboy's idea of a job is to murder a bank full of people and empty their pockets: he returns triumphant, murders the tenant who cuckolds him, and vows to continue his violent career.
The following act sees him being prosecuted for crimes against humanity. It reminds me, in its absurdity, of the court scene in The Magic Pudding (a story which, in its own way, reveals almost as bleak a view of humanity as Jarry). This act contains the best incidence of a running gag in which impassioned gestures are made towards human nobility: the judge makes a moving speech about the inalienability of human rights, to stunned silence: and then, after a long pause, the entire cast falls about laughing. I can't think of a better representation of the gap between governmental pieties about justice, and their unjust actions.
Finally, Fatboy becomes ruler of the world, which is not as much fun as he thought it would be: he finds that he has devoured everything, and there is nothing left to eat: no more wheat, no more milk, no more cows. He is reduced to eating his own crown. There is an attempted assassination, and so he kills everybody. The End.
Well, not quite the end: there is an apparently improvised epilogue, in which the actors remove their costumes, and Fatboy walks into the audience to tell us that we, arseholes, are him. This is the weakest part of the play, since the message has long been hammered home: it's our unbridled consumerism that drives this destruction. But it's funny, all the same.
It's perfect for Red Stitch's tiny stage, which is transformed into a Jarry-esque puppet theatre behind a lush red curtain (Jarry thought that the main thing wrong with theatre was the actors, and that they ought to be replaced with puppets). It's a wonderful, anarchic production of the play: director Marcelle Schmitz picks up and plays all the louche theatricality of the text, backed by Peter Mumford's cartoonish design of painted flats. There's a good dose of meta-theatricality, with white-face actors asking permission to leave the stage so they can change costume for their next role, a puppet show between acts where Fatboy eats the puppet, and loud thumps and sotte voce cursing backstage as the sets are changed between acts.
Schmitz has an excellent cast, who play the grotesquerie to the hilt: I loved all the performances, especially Frederikson ("I am Fatboy, and I am titular!") In the smaller roles, all doubled, the three supporting actors, Adam Pierzchalski, Dion Mills and Andrea Swifte, are hard to beat, and Olga Makeeva as Queen Fudgie generates a peculiarly grotesque sex appeal. It's not a place to look for subtlety: this is a theatre of broad, obvious gesture. The language is limber and witty enough to to keep you interested, and its constant inventive obscenity creates a compelling poetic.
As political theatre, this kind of rambunctious satire is vastly preferable to the wan politicising of a David Hare, because it does nothing to pacify the audience. It's rude, crude, vital and very, very angry. Does it make a difference? Only in the way the art does: there is a liberation in contemplating the truth of our circumstances, that might combat the paralysis that otherwise would overwhelm us. The naming of the terrible is a hope in itself. When actual - as opposed to delusive - hope seems about as endangered as the thylacine, that seems no bad thing to me.
Picture: Daniel Frederiksen as Fatboy, ruling the world at Red Stitch.
Fatboy, by John Clancy, directed by Marclle Schmitz. Design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis, costume design Olga Makeeva and Peter Mumford, sound design by Russel Goldsmith. With Daniel Frederiksen, Olga Makeeva, Adam Pierzchalski, Andrea Swifte and Dion Mills. Red Stitch until April 17. Bookings: 9533 8083.