Almost all of Simon Stephens’ play takes place in the translation booth of a courtroom of The Hague where Alfred Jarry’s grotesque absurdist dictator, Pa Ubu, is on trial for appalling crimes (explained through a puppet show as Jarry preferred).
Rob Ostlere (Jailor) and Paul McCleary (Ubu) in The Trial Of Ubu at Hampstead Theatre, London Photo: Tristram Kenton
Nearly all the dialogue comes by way of the two interpreters, played by Nikki Amuka-Bird and Kate Duchene. Quite what Stephens and director Katie Mitchell hoped that this would convey is not clear.
Duchene employs the naturalistic, monotonous delivery of a typical translator and this does, somehow, both sanitise and emphasise the horror of the crimes committed by Ubu. Instantly, however, that horror is nullified by the fact that he is a character with whom the audience has no relationship, committing crimes against a people and in a world unknown. There is no connection between the reality on stage and that in the auditorium.
Amuka-Bird’s character, on the other hand, is fidgety and terrified-looking and seems to be only just keeping up with the action in the court. Her delivery is quick-fire and breathless.
If these two are there as an advocate for the audience then the device fails. There is no sense of building tension or even horror at the crimes being described. If they are there to convey the amount of time passing, the device, again, fails - not least because Amuka-Bird’s character never develops her emotional range. If they are, perhaps, embodying the irony of a machine-like court trying people for crimes against humanity, then, surely, that’s reading too much into it. It’s just a very dull way of presenting a play.
There are a handful of scenes outside the booth. Paul McCleary’s clown Ubu realising his loneliness and two lawyers debating something or other. But, by then, who really cares?