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.

Show Hide image

Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear