This Ubu’s a boo-boo. The impulse behind Simon Stephens’ new play is complex: He puts the titular tyrant of Alfred Jarry’s infamous 1896 play “Ubu the King” on trial in the contemporary International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, in what the script advertises as a “virtuosic satire” of the international justice system. Helmer Katie Mitchell’s twist is to stage not the trial but the work of translators (Kate Duchene, Nikki Amuka-Bird) sitting in an anodyne booth and relaying the words spoken at the trial into microphones. This bizarre directorial gesture blunts the satire and obscures the message.
Evening begins with a puppet show speed-through of the original Jarry play, in which Pa Ubu, egged on by his Lady Macbeth-like wife Ma, gathers seditious followers, murders King Wenceslas of Baleshnik, stuffs the judiciary and the bankers down a chute, and massacres citizens who get in his despotic way. Keeping with the original the language is inventive, profane and scatological, and the tone knockabout and exaggerated.
In one of the evening’s several visual wow moments, the transition to the trial sequence could not be more stark: A smooth wooden panel on the curved front wall of Lizzie Clachan’s set glides up to reveal the translators facing us and silently preparing for their work. We only hear them speak when they turn on their mikes and translate the trial; in the breaks they mime presumably everyday conversation against Paul Clark’s instrumental score. Hence another juxtaposition: the workaday quality of their lives versus the horrible crimes against humanity that they recount in the trial. This is complicated further by the use of stylistic slo-mo and fast-forward sequences, presumably inserted to indicate that over a year passes during the trial.
About 45 minutes into the evening, Mitchell and Clachan score another visual coup as two other panels glide up to reveal, on one side, the decrepit Ubu in smeared clown makeup making conversation with his jailor (Rob Ostlere), and on the other the defense and prosecution lawyers (Josie Daxter, George Taylor) having a smoke and debating the ethical and material use/value of this judicial forum (a disappointingly direct delivery of the subtext from the usually more subtle Stephens). The action peaks with one of the translators having a meltdown as she translates Ubu’s final statement, in which he offers a long list of 20th century massacres and genocides (‘Belsen 1943, Nagazaki 1945… Manhattan Island, 2001…’)
By satirically conveying the horror of Ubu’s crimes in torturous legal-ese, Stephens is attempting to ask whether the Hague tribunal is a sophisticated expression of shared values or just (in the words of the prosecuting lawyer) the high-minded sector of the global community’s “moral masturbation.” A good question, but one already muddled by presenting it via the imagined trial of a fictional character. Add in the cool, clinical, self-consciously distancing affect of Mitchell’s staging, and we’re several steps further away from the heart of the matter. There is a fascination in watching the excellent Duchene and Amuka-Bird navigate the particularities of their fictional workplace, but the fact that this is the most memorable aspect of a production about this subject matter indicates the extent of the misfire.