THE TRIAL OF UBU
by Simon Stephens.
Hampstead Theatre Eton Avenue Swiss Cottage NW3 3EU To 25 February 2012.
Mon-Sat 7.30pm Mat Wed 2.30pm Sat 3pm.
Audio-described 11 Feb 3pm (+Touch Tour).
Captioned/Post-show Discussion 14 Feb.
Runs 1hr 20min No interval.
TICKETS: 020 7722 9301.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 24 January.
Barbarity and civilisation in close-focus conjunction.
There are three elements to this short evening, one of which works very well. To begin, there’s a brief Punch and Judy-style puppet show, though the knockabout characters come from the first of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu plays. Ubu Roi grew from Jarry’s schooldays in late 1880s France, and is full of schoolboy obscenity and excremental humour.
Ma and Pa Ubu, ruling their native Poland with teen-fantasy violence, were taken up by the avant garde. And, more to playwright Simon Stephens’ point, such violence went beyond adolescent cartoon extremism to be embedded in 20th-century history.
Most cast members have worked with movement specialist Joseph Alford to summarise Jarry’s plot in the puppet-show. It leads to Stephens’ addition, Ubu’s imagined war-crimes trial, where the fierce orders rasped by the rampaging puppet-Ubu are repeated in the unemotional tones of audio-translators in their soundproofed room, covering the whole century’s brutalities.
It has the alienated atmosphere of the modern European avant garde. That might be director Katie Mitchell’s influence, or the piece’s origins in a German-Dutch production.
Occasional short scenes are revealed at the sides as wood panels slide open, Lizzie Clachan’s set suggesting both secrecy and the smart façades behind which justice is delivered. In the less imposing interiors lawyers smoke and talk, disengaged from the crimes they have been describing, while in a cell Paul McCleary’s ghastly white-and-red faced Ubu lumbers with a walking-stick, aged and incapacitated, sure he’ll be freed, trying to chat with his jailer. The controlled calm emphasises the disparity between conflict zone and court procedure, with its courteous requests to sit or have a glass of water.
But the heart of the drama are the rivetingly detailed scenes where the translators quietly follow the rhythms, varied speeds and calm conveying of the century’s horrors committed by Ubu, taking-over from each other at a touch, their factual tones affected by feeling unwell, becoming bored and, occasionally, suggestions of taking-in what’s being translated.
These affect Duchêne’s Interpreter rather than Amura-Bird’s. But it’s their double-act, taming tragedy to sometimes ridiculous factual detail for the record, where Stephens and Mitchell make the point.
Interpreters: Nikki Amura-Bird, Kate Duchêne.
Counsel for the Defence: Josie Daxter.
Ubu: Paul McCleary.
Jailor: Rob Ostlere.
Prosecutor: George Taylor.
Director: Katie Mitchell.
Designer: Lizzie Clachan.
Lighting: Lucy Carter.
Sound: Tom Hackley.
Composer: Paul Clark.
Movement: Joseph Alford.
Assistant director: John Higgins.