Simplicity of premise provides the beauty of Simon Stephens’ The Trial of Ubu, but it also proves the biggest constraint. There’s great satirical potential in wrenching Alfred Jarry’s overblown despot Pa Ubu back into the real world to face the consequences of his grotesque actions in an ICC-style trial. The purity of the central concept is such, however, that with only a basic understanding of the original, one can grasp Stephens’ overarching ambition from brochure copy alone. The risk is one of triteness.
Nevertheless, those who avoid the Hampstead on that basis will miss the craft with which the subject’s surrounding intricacies are explored in Katie Mitchell’s production. Admittedly, The Trial of Ubu has less to chew on than the superior Wastwater, which gave chase to a greasier pig, but there is nonetheless an awful lot to keep one’s mind occupied, both during and after proceedings, if you let it.
For starters, following a Punch and Judy-style synopsis of Jarry’s original, Mitchell presents the trial not as is, but at one remove, through two interpreters, who translate and repeat the words spoken inside the courtroom itself.
There will be those who cry tedium; that the commentary box has nothing on the match itself. They are wrong. This is a chance to engross oneself in the minute details that would otherwise go unseen. By refracting rather than simply representing the trial, Mitchell better reveals its component parts. Her production sees clearer precisely because it does not look directly at the sun. So dazzlingly grotesque is Pa Ubu that his presence would outshine any nuanced reflection.
Certainly, the text is delivered with all the tonal variation of Morse code. Reported back, it is stripped of emotion and, to a certain extent, intention. Punctuation becomes garbled, replaced with a steady, but stuttering, flow of words; pauses are scrapped as they struggle to keep pace; language warps. But do we not learn more from a fingerprint than from the lines on a palm, even though the contours offer less contrast?
Rather than the performative behaviour of a trial, in which everyone is aware of being watched, Mitchell can present genuine – often involuntary – reaction. Words send shivers and draw gasps, but can’t be fully digested or registered, such is the speed of their task. While Nikki Amuka-Bird’s interpreter is ever professional, getting the job done with a stony-faced, machinated aloofness, Kate Duchêne is entirely human. She fits with giggles, wells up with tears and succumbs to a cold. In the contrast – both sides of which are familiar responses – lies the production’s heart.
As such, The Trial of Ubu is not so much about the nature of such regimes themselves – though, of course, it can’t completely sidestep that subject, no matter how broadly Stephens treats it. Rather, it concerns the impossibility of a proper, fitting and just response in the aftermath. How, Stephens and Mitchell combine to ask, can we possibly begin to assign responsibility, let alone conduct a fair trial, given the enormity of expectation, of prejudice (in the strictest sense of the word) and of suffering? How, in other words, can we humanly respond to the categorically inhumane?
Paul McCleary’s Pa Ubu is both intensely human and, at the same time, not at all. He is a frail old man, whose jailor must help him smoke, let alone stand, so the maximum security that surrounds him seems ludicrous. ‘Is the architecture all for me,’ he asks the Judge. Nevertheless, made up with the same soaked clown face as Heath Ledger’s Joker, Ubu becomes cartoon villain. Certainly, he’s tried as such; as a scapegoat, the very opposite of a puppet leader. ‘J’accuse,’ the witnesses cry, shifting the blame from their own shoulders. ‘He told me to.’ ‘He said I’d be killed.’ In punishing him, they absolve themselves of any responsibility. Ubu is their Get Out of Jail Free card.
Interspersed with scenes outside the courtroom – Ubu in his cell, two lawyers in conversation over a cigarette – The Trial of Ubu becomes a fascinating indictment of the international justice system. The neatly packaged narrative belies a web of responsibility and reduces complexities into grim folklore – which perhaps explains the filmic quality of Lizzie Clachan’s individual box sets. Its central case is no less vengeful than the stringing up of Benito Mussolini or the uncivilised disposal of Muammar Gaddafi. If it lacks the horror of such hellish ends, Ubu’s trial is instead purgatorial: ‘I think I’m losing track of time a little bit,’ he says to the judge. For all its criticism, The Trial of Ubu isn’t so perverse as to entirely undermine the system, and endless assessment comes to seem a fitting piece.
Mitchell’s production is characteristically well-drilled and precise, but the masterstroke is to re-invent Stephens’ play for the nuances around its edges than its straightforward centre. As such, The Trial of Ubu needs to be watched from an angle, with a willingness to make connections and grapple, rather than head-on, waiting for answers to be dished out.