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Review Round-up: Critics judge Mitchell's Trial of Ubu

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Simon Stephens' updating of Alfred Jarry's absurdist classic The Trial of Ubu opened on the Hampstead Theatre’s main stage this week (23 January 2012, previews from 18 January) directed by Katie Mitchell.

Kate Duchene and Nikki Amuka-Bird deliver noteworthy performances as court interpreters in the play, which follows the dictator from Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. The interpreters speak for the characters, and Ubu, as he questions the morals and ethics of the legal system and is tried for war crimes.

The production continues its limited run until 25 February 2012.

Michael Coveney

Alfred Jarry’s 1896 absurdist shocker Ubu Roi is one of those famous plays that never gets done, and that remains the case, really, despite Simon Stephens’ chilling courtroom take on the deeds of a tyrant … The monster is called to account and his words recycled through the microphoned speeches of two impassive interpreters, so that the impact of the evening lies in the horror with which the madman is exposed, not – as in Jarry – the exhilarating delight in his grotesque escapades. In other words, the play has been politicised, but in a different way to how it exists. There is nothing wrong in doing this, and Stephens writes as well as he always does, but the show is far less fun than it should be … The puppets at Hampstead are quite fun, but the action is garbled, not executed, so you don’t get any of the schoolboy parodies of Macbeth and Julius Caesar … But a trial has a different sort of energy to a play, and this one seems slightly too po-faced and righteous for its own good."

Michael Billington

"Ubu becomes a symbol of contemporary dictators, and issues are raised about the capacity of the law to cope with political crimes. But it is debatable as to whether Katie Mitchell, by refracting the trial through a pair of headphone-wearing interpreters, has chosen the ideal form … Having attended the trial of Slobodan Milošević in The Hague, I can vouch for the bizarre contrast between the dry legal formality and the hideous crimes under review. But I think Mitchell misses a trick by giving us a secondhand version of Ubu's trial: the irony of Stephens's idea would have been clearer if we had seen Tricycle tribunal-theatre techniques applied to a fictional archetype like Ubu … But the puppetry is good, Kate Duchene and Nikki Amuka-Bird faithfully embody Mitchell's concept as the interpreters … Stephens reminds us that Jarry's play, written as a schoolboy prank, had a stunning prophetic power.”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"This is punishing – and not in a good way. The playwright arrogantly believes that 'theatre serves documentary poorly' and so instead of examining a real-life case… he has gone back to the French writer Alfred Jarry… and his grotesque fictitious character … Ubu, now played by a live actor, who with his whiteface make up and livid red gash of a mouth resembles the Joker in the Batman movies … The combined effect of having a fictional character on trial, and Mitchell’s absurd focus on the translators, rather than the witnesses and the accused, is to create an arty, tiresomely self-regarding production out of subject matter that ought to offer a serious, sober insight into the darkness of mankind at its worst …The opening puppet show is delivered with some panache, Nikki Amuka Bird and Kate Duchene are superbly fluent as the even-toned translators, and Paul McCleary cuts a truly nightmarish figure as Ubu … But this smart-alec production proves an entirely inadequate response to tyranny and mass murder, reducing man’s inhumanity to man to little more than a box of theatrical tricks."

Ian Shuttleworth
Financial Times

“The contrast between the first two phases of Katie Mitchell’s production is thrilling … A rumbustious Punch and Judy-style puppet show lasting 10 minutes or so… followed by two interpreters sitting in a booth, reciting the full indictments against Ubu … The differences between absurdity and gravitas, misrule and procedure, energy and aridity are borne in powerfully … The rest is all recounted by Kate Duchene and Nikki Amuka-Bird into their desk microphones, punctuated by (wonderfully executed) time-lapse sequences … There is a point to reducing the two extremes of grotesquerie, the exuberant and the grim … It may suggest that reducing such enormities to theatre is grotesque in itself … But ultimately they all pale beside the reality that is the resultant theatrical tedium … Stephens has become a vocal champion of directors’ rights to interpret dramatic texts in the most radical, deconstructive ways, and Mitchell has … There comes a point when the result stops actually being theatre. This is not, to use the vogue phrase, 'post-dramatic'; it is anti-dramatic … And for me it fails that reciprocal test.”

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

“Over-styled, under-humanised: that is often a problem with shows directed by fiddly Katie Mitchell … Most lines intended for… various characters are spoken by the court’s two interpreters whom we see sitting in their simultaneous-translation box. Neat idea? Up to a point. The snag is that it strangles those characters as, well, characters … Kate Duchene and Nikki Amuka-Bird do the translators quite well. Duchene, in particular, catches the semi-drugged, anger-management monotone heard of translators on the Brussels/Hague/Strasbourg circuit. Her soft, level voice flows seamlessly through the foam-ended microphone … Two-thirds of the way through… we are given glimpses of the other characters. Sadly, they remain caricatured, with Paul McCleary as a weirdly-painted Ubu … The translators give hints of differing reactions to the trial but they are not allowed to say anything in their own voices. It is hard to be sure what is going on … Miss Too Clever By Half Mitchell has to go and push herself in the way."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"Courtroom drama is always popular, and Simon Stephens subverts the conventions of the genre in this sharply contemporary piece, inventively directed by Katie Mitchell … We begin with a puppet show which presents Stephens's abbreviated version of Jarry: profane and grotesque, it's Punch and Judy as if imagined by satirist Chris Morris … The performances of Kate Duchene and Nikki Amuka-Bird are beautifully nuanced, full of precisely modulated gesture … Lizzie Clachan's set is ingenious, and when its configuration alters other characters are revealed … Stephens is less interested in Ubu's bloody reign than in drawing attention to the machinery of the law … But while Mitchell's production is visually impressive, its boldness is rigorous rather than engaging. And Stephens's writing, which feels oddly condensed, doesn't quite get under the skin of the issues - or under our skin."

- Amy Sheppard


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