BWW Review: THE TRIAL OF UBU, Hampstead Theatre, January 2012
Katie Mitchell is frequently billed one of Britain’s most divisive directors, the Marmite of the theatre world. Unfortunately, her latest production won’t win over any critics – but nor is it uniformly terrible. Simon Stephens’ reinterpretation of Alfred Jarry’s play focuses on the trial of fictional dictator Pa Ubu, whose exhaustive list of titles provides one of the production’s few laughs, delivered by Kate Duchene’s increasingly frazzled interpreter. It attempts to be two things – a meditation on the absurdity and banality of evil, and an exploration of the purpose of the International Criminal Court - but fully succeeds with neither.
It opens, somewhat jarringly, with a puppet show conveying the crimes of which Ubu is accused. It's Punch and Judy meets Macbeth, Spitting Image without the biting satire. It sets the tone, however, for the deceptively simplistic moral language used by the defendant and witnesses. This lack of equivocation only serves to highlight Ubu’s crimes, which are both horrific and absurdist. Spurred on by his wife and general, Ubu arranges for the assassination of King Wenceslas and then massacres the aristocracy and judges so that he can have all the land and make all the laws. The lack of subtlety here could grate, but it is a compelling, if implausibly honest, dissection of a tyrant’s motives.
After the puppet show, Ubu is played by Paul McCleary in clown make-up. The disguise is gimmicky but effective – because we cannot see his face, he becomes any dictator that has sat in the Hague accused of crimes against humanity. However, the few scenes he is allotted offer very little to flesh out this character, when we see him reduced to bargaining and manipulating his disinterested jailer, played with cold detachment by Rob Ostlere.
The 90 minute play is largely a two-hander - the scenes between the prosecutor and defence and between Ubu and his jailer feel tacked on - the play could have made it's points quite comfortably, and with more subtlety, without them. It is the two interpreters who get the lion’s share of stage time and deservedly so. Nikki Amuka-Bird gives a quiet, compelling performance, but it is only Duchene who offers a glimpse into her character's interior life - an ill-timed giggling fit during a horrific description of mass murder, idly flicking through a magazine oblivious to her partner's attempts to get her attention to take over the interpreting and her final breakdown as she recites a list of the countless atrocities of the 20th and 21st centuries. Although both women speak someone else's words, the rapport between them is clear. It is here that Katie Mitchell’s directing style shines – she is known for exhaustive forays into the backstories of her characters, and the result is two nuanced performances that could – and should - have carried the play alone.
Overall, The Trial of Ubu is a strong, enjoyable production that doesn’t challenge the audience the way it thinks it does. It has a lot to recommend it – including some excellent performances and an innovative if unsophisticated use of puppetry – but, much like Ubu’s defence, fails to convince.