So goes the famous opening line of Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the extra “r” for pungent emphasis.
“Shitters!” cries the small bright puppet of Ubu poking from a small rectangular aperture in the implacable wooden rampart covering the Hampstead stage, a papier mache fudge of such maladroit planes and thickened wedges as to be a deliberate affront to craft. The addition of “ers” to the solid “shit” is part of Simon Stephen’s cockney update to the sloshing facility with execration of Jarry’s protagonist. It also renders the word an agent noun, the suffix borrowed from the Old English “ware” meaning residency or an inhabitant of. We are members of a shitty club, commonly base and linked in waste, and yet, Jarry has suggested, we are nothing compared to the appetites of sovereignty, where all is a feast – shit waiting to happen.
As was Jarry, food for the maggots by the age of thirty four, dying paralysed from the waist down and lodged in a space between apartment walls apparently having soiled himself. There are rivers of shit in the Ubu plays, sticky with logs and mudfat, dogtags and turtleheads. English translations had Sexcrement and Buggerlas as character names, Ubu Rex was “King Turd”. His costume, as stipulated by Jarry, was to resemble a “bum in front and behind”. Less appetising than Fubu Winklepickers, Jarry invents shoes called “Turd-crunchers” which come in a range including “still-steaming, horsedung, the oldest coproliths, sullen cowpats, the innocent mecononium of breast-fed baby, someting special for Policeman’s droppings, and a pair for the stools of middle aged men”.
Tonight Pa Ubu is less fanciful but no less scatalogical, a diminutive patriarch cockney he’s all “blubbery bumholes” this, and “bugger me backwards you blubbery tit” that, occasionally sucking himself off in some of the best moments of puppet-based auto-fellatio you’re likely to see in Hampstead this Spring. He’s sparklingly violent, swinging Punch-like at Ma Ubu, before going on to depose King Wenceslas (“you bollock bucket”), and dispose of the bankers and judges down a lavatorial chute.
And then the aperture squeezes shut.
And the panel that covers the front of the stage rises to reveal a perfectly-mundane bureaucratic room with tenebrific electric lights, in which two interpreters sit blinkingly relating an unfolding criminal trial. Kate Duchêne is superb, glassy and harassed, reeling out the charges in all their dry sub-clausule intricacy. When it all gets too much she tags the lively and abashed Nikki Amuka-Bird, as they become weighed down by the horror and endlessness of proceedings. Katie Mitchell brings her well-made game, terseness shot through with thunder, queasily pregnant in a finely controlled environment, the ominousness of a blinking halogen in deserted office-space. Reminiscent of Wastwater, here Lizzie Clachan’s set-design is even better: fussless boxes, a stern and elegant institutionalised triptych.
Stephens’ text (simmered down to searing concentrate after its first outing with Toneelgroep Amsterdam and the Schauspielhaaus Essen) rakes back over the narrative points of the Ubu plays to place them under the forensic lens of judicial procedure. Ubu is up for war crimes, and along with the solemn indictment of the same totalitarian lust that Jarry took on with such abandon, comes an interrogation of our relationship with visual violence and the authoritarian personality, the terror in the gut of populism, and centrally, the operations of international justice.
Over a few fags outside the courtroom, we are neatly toured through an exposition of the court’s shortcomings: its historical skew, the slippery fictive quality of the lines drawn in the sand, which reduce complexity of action (momentary products of “what people hear, and they smell, and they taste, and they feel”) to fixed instances of guilt, and how proceedings allow the continuity of injustice in the gears of absolved administrations. Its precise work, almost too precise. Because if the courts’ purview is invariably too narrow, then, enraptured by the theatrical disjunction between murderous monster and the slow dutiful grind of liberal decency, perhaps so too is the play’s.
“After what we’ve done. How dare we judge anyone?” says the prosecutor to the defence. “How dare we not.” comes her reply. Because the heart of this play is a quivering organ, sweetly pumped with a righteous sense of the nobility of criminal justice. Sailing in tandem with the international judiciary’s conception of itself, it indulges itself in the kind of it’s-not-perfect-but-it’s-the-best-around satieties that mark latterday notions of Western progress. Where the playwright might make a busy and novel agent in the realms of jurisprudence, here we get something more clingy, a touch dewy-eyed, a hymn to the nailing of bad guys.
And while the glowering menacing Paul McCleary as Ubu the man (a scarified and makeupped Heath Ledger-variant Joker) makes a half-hearted move to interrogate universalism in his final oration (“we’re not all born rational”), pinned so far under the minutiae of due process, he fails to stand up. We are left with an ominous sense of barbarians at the gates, evil embodied in the actions of foreign men. Leaving aside the court’s implications in continuing modes of Western dominance, and their reflection upon us (Ubu stabs at the court as spectacle but doesn’t sever nerves), there is perhaps another reading of despotic hunger as something operating closer to home, the violence of sovereignty that Jarry perhaps did not confine to illiberal systems, in tandem those voracious social forces that hoover up all before us. The Trial of Ubu is clever, extraordinarily staged, but in being so too easily slips the handcuffs, leaving us finally with an account of international justice that feels a touch slippery and light-fingered.