'It's really obvious that Ubu doesn't have any power'

NOT many plays can claim to have started a riot after only one word. But at the first performance of Alfred Jarry's Ubu the King in 1896, the first word - a profanity - caused such clamour that it took half an hour before order was restored.

Almost 100 years on, this dark absurdist play still has the power to shock. A new adaptation by David Greig - a co-production by Dundee Rep, the Tron, BITE:05, the Barbican and the Young Vic as part of the Young Genius festival - has been described as "frantic, foul-mouthed [and] not for the faint-hearted".

The fact that Greig sets it in an old folks' home guns down another taboo, the determination of our society to keep the incontinent elderly out of sight and out of mind. Ubu and his crew pull no punches when it comes to bodily functions, swearing and gratuitous violence.

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"It's all in very bad taste," grins Gerry Mulgrew, who takes the title role. "It's old folk behaving badly, doing all sorts of appalling things. It's great to be working with older actors and allowing them to run riot. They don't have to play the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet, or Chekhov, or old grannies. They play mad people who have orgies and act out fantasies, it's a liberation."

In this context, Ubu's tyranny becomes at once more deranged and more poignant. "He has this fantasy about becoming king and destroying everything in the country, but he's actually quite a sad old man. He's constantly afraid of death, but he rages against it and drags the rest of the inmates with him. This production adds the character of a care worker who takes various parts in the play, indulging their fantasies. It's obvious that Ubu doesn't have any power."

The Young Genius season celebrates early works by the greats of theatre. Jarry wrote Ubu when he was still in his teens, an absurdist caricature of his French teacher - "obviously a wee, fat tyrant who was obsessed with Shakespeare," grins Mulgrew. Jarry has taken elements from of Shakespeare's tyrants - Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Richard III - and added them to his pastiche.

Subsequent generations have turned to Ubu as an expression of tyranny at its most abusive. Jarry, despite his young age, understood that when a human being holds almost unlimited power he regresses to behaving like a young child. "Hitler was nicknamed 'the Carpet Eater' because, when he was in his extreme rages, he used to get down on his hands and knees and eat the carpet. It was blind rage, like an animal, like a little boy. Ubu is a bit like that."

It's a challenging part for Mulgrew, 56, who is perhaps best known as one of Scotland's most respected directors, the founder and driving force behind Communicado Theatre Company. "It's a big part in more senses than one," he says grimly. "It's very physical, a lot of sword fights, it's knackering. I think I've managed to lose a bit of weight.

"I've always been an actor. Communicado was founded by actors, it was an actors' company. In a world where we are all increasingly specialist, I'm enjoying doing all these things, I don't see why I should deny myself that if I can get away with it."

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Communicado was founded by Mulgrew, Alison Peebles and Rob Pickavance in 1983, but Mulgrew was the artistic powerhouse who built it into one of Scotland's most innovative companies; European influenced but Scottish in flavour, committed to exploring all the "languages" of theatre. Hits included Lorca's Blood Wedding, relocated to the Highlands, Liz Lochhead's Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Edwin Morgan's Cyrano de Bergerac and The Suicide in the 1990s.

However in 1998, a power struggle split the company. Mulgrew resigned and, after a protracted struggle, won the right to keep the Communicado name.

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Mulgrew still puts on Communicado shows - after Christmas he will start work on a new production of Vclav Havel's Memorandum - but faces a constant fight to find funding.

There is a hint of anger here in his steely grey eyes. Despite a 30-year track record, he is forced to apply twice a year for project-based grants like any new company. "I'm not prepared to do it much longer on a hand-to-mouth existence. Unless the Scottish Arts Council is prepared to come up with some decent money Communicado is going to go away. I'm not prepared to work like that. There's so much short-termism. You can't plan into the future."

Still, the idealist in him does so. He talks about having their own performance space, year-round funding and an associated research facility. "Ach, go out and change the world, Susan," he says, a parting shot before he goes off to read his Ubu lines in time for the afternoon rehearsal. I think he still believes it's possible. Just.

Ubu the King is at the Tron, Glasgow, tomorrow until 12 November, Dundee Rep, 16-26 November and the Barbican, London, 30 November until 10 December.

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