“We know he did it.” Author Simon Stephens sums up the premise of his new play in five simple words that prove anything but. Papa Ubu is guilty as hell and the audience knows it. A brutally comic opening twenty minutes sees Ubu, his Lady Macbeth-esque wife and his team of Scottish assassins chop King Wenceslas in pieces, shouting “Pile on ‘las”. Then they systematically drop the entire aristocracy, judiciary and military down a trap door into a cellar where they all die — 1500 murders in all, apparently. As Ubu puts it, “I changed the rules: simple innit. I’ll make my fortune, kill the whole world and bugger off.”
The focus of Stephens’ thrillingly intelligent play is the trial of Papa Ubu, 93 years after these events, for crimes against humanity. Ubu Roi, written at the turn of the century by absinthe-loving wild child Alfred Jarry, is a blackly comic satire on abuse of power that influenced 20th century drama in all sorts of ways. Stephens brings it screeching into the 21st century by asking how we would deal with a real life Ubu right now, if he came before the international courts. Recent such trials, involving figures such as Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic or Charles Taylor, share disturbing parallels.
A highly ingenious play, already acclaimed in Germany, The Trial of Ubu is given an appropriately disconcerting staging by the queen of conceptual direction, Katie Mitchell. The opening atrocities, extracted from Jarry’s play, are performed by scatological puppets through a small window in the fire curtain. The puppet show combines violent Punch and Judy traditions with horrific genocide, making for some guilty audience hilarity.
When the action leaps to 2011, we see Ubu’s trial almost entirely through the reactions of the two female interpreters who are translating the proceedings in a booth. Their mood shifts gradually from professionalism, to giggling, to weariness, to drained disbelief at what they are hearing. The actors — Nikki Amuka-Bird and Kate Duchêne on top form — actually fast forward themselves, speeding up their actions to skip passages of time as the trial drags on for months. The result is both a defence and critique of the International Criminal Court, both a suspect institution and a major achievement for humanity.
The Trial of Ubu is a very high quality piece, and it helps to confirm the suspicion that the Hampstead Theatre under Edward Hall is becoming an essential venue (albeit an expensive one). Mitchell and Stephens — talented, prolific and versatile — are at the peaks of their careers and make an impressive team. The latest in a succession of fascinating plays from Stephens, The Trial of Ubu is exactly what new drama should be — built on tradition but clear-headed, politically incisive and highly watchable.
The Trial of Ubu is at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London NW3 3EU until 25 February, tickets £29 (£12 concessions).
Production image by Stephen Cummiskey