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Still crazy after all these years

Simon Stephens's new play transports Alfred Jarry to the International Criminal Tribunal.

When a play starts with the act of auto-fellatio, performed by a puppet, you know you're not in Kansas any more. Simon Stephens's The Trial of Ubu, at the Hampstead Theatre, begins with a quick-draw, crude in all ways, précis of Alfred Jarry's 1896 play Ubu Roi. Many of us have a beef with our physics teachers, but as far as I'm aware, Jarry is alone in turning his science prof into an unhinged dictator in a scatological satire that was later to be championed as a masterpiece by the absurdists. Ubu is a megalomaniac so grotesque, so murderous that all subsequent wannabe despots have unwittingly become Ubu-esque.

The puppet prologue might be characterised as Macbeth with fart gags. Pa Ubu, spurred on by Ma, and the promise of a big hat, bumps off King Wenceslas (echoes of Julius Caesar in the King's "you 'n' all, Ubu?") before - "bugger me sideways" - moving on to the judges, the bankers and the gentry.

After this entertaining fifteen minute Punch and Judy, set-designer Lizzie Clachan's blandly sophisticated panelling reconfigures as a second, larger booth. This belongs to a pair of interpreters, who are relaying the doings of the international court where Ubu, some one hundred fantastical years later, is on trial.

Here, again, director Katie Mitchell confronts us with arm's length ventriloquism. The actors interpret the words of unseen courtroom protagonists, as received on their headsets. Kate Duchêne and Nikki Amuka-Bird, but especially Dûchene, tenaciously mimic the uninflected, hushed monotony and cracked rhythms of simultaneous translators. We get the enervating mix of tension and tedium in lengthy legal procedure. There are glimpses only of their lives beyond the box. We're drawn, half-starved, to these touches of humanity (a bad cold, a mouth spray, a glossy magazine).

Because this business of relaying speech, and draining it of vitality, is essentially anti-dramatic, we are unengaged in the real-time cut and thrust on stage. The hand-me-down transmission of events keeps us clear of what Othello called "the pity of it" just as surely as the slasher puppetry does in the prelude. Which is not to say that we don't gain something of wit, of irony, from the bloodless broadcast mode. It points up absurdities in Ubu (they intone, "Simple, innit. I make my fortune, rule the world and bugger off"), the legal system and yes, our jaded responses to it all.
We're dished up two flavours, and cannily prevented from luxuriating in either one of them. There's a telling moment when the linguists get the giggles during a particularly grotesque section of the trial. The acting profession gave us the word "corpsing" for such disruptive laughter, which seems ghoulishly apt in this instance, since they're recounting a mass-murder.

Mitchell is a precision miniaturist. The choreographed details in her exquisite dioramas are quietly absorbing, even as we're locked out of emotional engagement. To stalk the action sideways like this strikes me as an alert and thoughtful response to the docu-drama, to "tribunal theatre," not to mention to its flashy new best friend, "verbatim theatre" (as in the National's recent London Road). Mitchell draws attention to these rival approaches to real events in her use (if not overuse) of the fast-forward device, which has the actors bobbing and jerking their way through time. This is not merely arm's length, it's remote control.

There were times, however, when if I'd had such a device I might have used it myself. Hoisted ever so slightly by its own pétard, the show is fatally faithful to the tedium of court proceedings. I suspect many in the audience were yearning for Kansas.

There are two further scenarios-in-a-box. One displays two lawyers on a fag break, arguing about efficacy and morality in the Hague (reach for the remote). And in a final flourish of doubling, we see a garishly painted but very much human Ubu with his guard. I found Paul McCleary, as the broken despot, curiously affecting, despite everything. The unredeemable dictator forlornly suggests to his jailor a slap-up barbecue and the use of the presidential swimming lake. Crazy to the last.