“Maybe the only thing we’re obliged to do…is think the unthinkable”
One always knows that when Katie Mitchell’s name appears in connection with a play, then it is bound to be something just a little bit different as she has proved herself to be one of our most original, and consequently divisive, directors. Her latest foray into the theatre is with Simon Stephens’ satirical new play The Trial of Ubu which is just starting at the Hampstead Theatre. Mitchell has recently collaborated with both: Stephens’ play Wastwater left me more than a little bemused at the Royal Court but her installation piece small hours which played as part of the Hampstead Downstairs season last year was quietly, disturbingly excellent.
The Trial of Ubu is quite something else though. Dark, disconcerting and challenging, it really is unlike anything else in London at the moment. I saw it without knowing anything about it, or indeed about the play itself to be honest, aside from having a vague recollection of having heard a mention of Père Ubu once upon a time. And it is obviously up to you how forewarned you want to be about the show, just be aware that what will follow will necessarily contain a few spoilers.
Things start off rather randomly with a puppet show, think Punch and Judy crossed with Spitting Image, which presents as grotesque farce, the nefarious violent doings of King Ubu during his bloody rise to power and torrid reign which is actually a new version of Alfred Jarry’s absurdist work Ubu Roi by Stephens. A section of the stage wall then opens up and two interpreters take their seat at the ringside of the International Criminal Tribune in The Hague at the trial of a brutal dictator who stands accused of crimes against humanity and multiple violations of international humanitarian law. That dictator is Ubu, Stephens having taken the fictional character and placed him in a modern-day context to draw strong, if non-specific parallels with the likes of Slobodan Milošević and Charles Taylor who both faced trial for genocide.
In a bold stroke, we don’t witness Ubu’s trial directly, but rather experience it through these two interpreters who are stretched to the limit as the court is in the Netherlands, the defendant speaks Russian, defence counsel speaks French and the prosecutor is German. And by removing ‘character’ from the equation as these two women translate all the dialogue from their poky little room, the unflinching emphasis is placed on the effectiveness of international law and questions the legitimacy that it actually possesses, especially outwith the cultural specificity where the crime was committed. We also get to see the increasingly traumatic impact of the trial and its subject matter on the interpreters – played skilfully by Kate Duchêne and Nikki Amuka-Bird (a late replacement for Hattie Morahan) – as the case drags on and how their mutually dependent relationship develops whilst they continue to capture neutrally every nuance from every language. They’re both extremely good, dealing well with the huge challenge of verbosity, but Duchêne is genuinely outstanding – her wordless breakdown near the end, almost hidden from view, is just heartbreaking
These scenes are alleviated by brief interludes in which we see opposing counsel debate the merits of their legal battling, and also Ubu and his jailer in snippets of conversation. The latter of these is the most disturbing as Paul McLeary’s dictator, for so long unseen, is most disconcerting to look at, the most obvious visual cue being Heath Ledger’s Joker. This effectively calls back to the puppet show of the beginning but also heightens the comic tragedy of self-aggrandising rulers, so often tolerated by the international community until it is too late. And overall, there’s actually little of the overtly ‘Mitchell’ touch that seems to rub people up the wrong way, myself included on occasion, the fluid passage of time – the trial lasts for over 430 days – is well suggested by flashes of fast-forward movement, but it cannot be denied that Mitchell’s approach here is a devastatingly effective way of portraying a trial.
Normally when I write reviews, I try to steer clear of reading anything else about the play so that I can capture my own response, free from the unwitting plagiarism that always seems to happen. With The Trial of Ubu though, I ended up doing a lot of reading, about Jarry and interviews with both Stephens and Mitchell, and I’m glad that I did because it definitely enriched my understanding, and thus the experience of the play. It isn’t necessarily the easiest watch, but it is genuinely unique – Mitchell may still struggle to get the respect she deserves in this country – and utterly thought-provoking – Stephens posing questions that get to the very heart of what our morality is based upon.