The Theatreguide.London Review
Hampstead Theatre January-February 2012
Like Polonius, Simon Stephens uses indirection to find directions out in his new play, which is another way of saying he takes the long way round to make a fairly simple point.
The point is a strong one, and the indirection helps him illuminate it in fresh ways. But this ninety-minute play is a long ninety minutes, because it says what it has to say fairly quickly and then has little to do but keep on saying it.
Stephens wants us to understand that atrocities and genocide are Bad Things, and that the worse they are, the less equipped our legal structures and principles are to deal with them. The crimes of those with no moral sense are limitless, says the play, while the limits and protections built into our laws were not made to cope with such extremes.
The first of his indirections is not to tell or invent a modern story but to dip back into Alfred Jarry's 1896 satire Ubu Roi, about a monster of avarice who kills his way to the throne and then kills just about everyone else around in order to seize their wealth for himself.
After an overlong prelude that presents Jarry's story as a Punch-and-Judy style puppet show, Stephens imagines Ubu brought before a modern international court on charges of crimes against humanity.
And then even that is presented indirectly, as we witness the trial through a pair of simultaneous translators, sitting in their booth and playing all the roles with affectless voices while their faces betray the effects on them of what they're saying.
A couple of short scenes involving the lawyers and defendant add little – the core of the play lies in the two translators as they try to do their methodical job while experiencing, at various moments, fascination, horror, disgust, boredom and a range of other emotions while they recite the catalogue of Ubu's crimes and the defence lawyer's obscene attempts to deflect guilt onto the witnesses and victims.
Director Katie Mitchell, who in recent years has made a speciality of conquering seemingly impossible-to-stage plays, is unable to make the puppet show more than tedious or the secondary scenes of any interest.
But, working with two extraordinarily sensitive and subtle actresses, she has guided Nikki Amuka-Bird and especially Kate Duchene to remarkable performances, presenting the characters' professional disaffection, their individual personalities and the draining effect of the testimony on them, all while never speaking a word other than the court proceedings.
Their performances, each a master class in acting, are this production's main attraction.
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Review - The Trial of Ubu - Hampstead 2012