January 13, 2012 9:01 pm

Drama in the dock

Courtrooms make for vivid theatre. Simon Stephens’ inventive new play puts fictional despot King Ubu on trial

Some of the most exciting scenes in world drama are trial scenes. Think of Portia, in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, averting bloodshed before our eyes at the last minute by her nimble use of the law. Or Azdak in Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle brilliantly revealing which of two women really loves a disputed child. Or Abigail in Miller’s The Crucible spreading hysteria through the court by feigning terror. The thrill of adversarial contest and the clash of personality and formal proceedings can be irresistible on stage. And courtroom drama remains a staple of screen entertainment: from classic movies such as The Verdict, 12 Angry Men or A Few Good Men to popular television series galore.

The latest playwright to step into the courtroom is Simon Stephens, whose play The Trial of Ubu opens for its UK premiere this month. Stephens is not a writer who tends to do things by halves: his previous work includes Punk Rock (middle-class teenage violence), Pornography (the 7/7 London bombings) and A Thousand Stars Explode in the Sky (the end of the universe). His new work is no exception. It is set not in a civil court but in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, where figures such as Slobodan Milosevic, Charles Taylor and Ratko Mladic have been sent for trial, accused of genocide. And rather than dramatise a real-life trial, the character he has placed under oath is King Ubu, the megalomaniac monster monarch from Alfred Jarry’s 19th-century play Ubu Roi.

Stephens explains that the potential mix of gravity and absurdity appealed to him when German director Sebastian Nübling commissioned him for an earlier Dutch/German production. “Sebastian wanted to do King Ubu but thought it needed something bringing to it to make it more contemporary,” recalls Stephens, an infectiously energetic and friendly individual. “He was fascinated by the International Criminal Court and the questions that sit underneath the ICC. Does it work? Can it work? Is it human civilisation at its highest? Is it expensive self-indulgence? Are there some crimes that transcend cultural specificity, or actually is it irresponsible to judge a crime outside the culture in which it was committed? I found the ICC and those questions really compelling. I remain a pretty fierce advocate of the ICC: I think it dignifies us. I think it’s a damn shame that Gaddafi didn’t make it there.”

The fanciful notion of trying Ubu, he says, gave him a means of offsetting the weightiness of the subject. “It’s quite silly,” he admits, cheerfully. “And if it works, the gravity and the silliness should complement one another really happily.”

At London’s Hampstead Theatre the play will be preceded by a short puppet drama outlining Ubu’s rise to power and his many violations of international humanitarian law (stuffing most of his fellow puppets down a chute, for example). For Stephens, what is crucial is the contrast between the dignity of the legal process and the grotesque crimes – even when presented as knockabout comedy.

“We know he did it. We watched him push the judiciary down the chute. And when we watched it, because he was a silly puppet speaking a funny language, it was quite funny. We know he’s guilty: a reconsideration of what it is we think we’re watching is the central idea. And that is brought about by a juxtaposition of tone and style as well.”

So the style may be playful but the subject is deadly serious. And Stephens points out that although Ubu is fictitious, his crimes, his outrageous conduct and his refusal to recognise the court echo real-life examples of despotic behaviour. However, could one still level the charge at Stephens that this approach, rather than dramatising a real trial, trivialises the subject?

“Why Ubu – why not Charles Taylor, why not Gaddafi, why not Saddam?” says Stephens, taking up the question. “What I hope is that Ubu presents us with the possibility of an archetype, which allows metaphor. I think the danger of building a fictionalised trial around a real criminal is that it removes metaphor and so positions the audience in a very particular place – the same place as when you read a newspaper or watch a documentary – that of an interested but detached spectator.

“What I hope the play interrogates is the validity of us, at the end of our century of brutality, trying brutality everywhere else. I think that’s a really big question and I don’t think you can get that question with a transcript of an actual trial.”

The scale of the question that can be posed is surely one of the attractions of courtroom drama. No wonder dramatists return to it again and again. It’s a great fit: both stages and courtrooms have rules and conventions, customs and costumes, arguments and conclusions, audiences and key players. Both, crucially, present the opportunity for one stunning performance to make a difference.

Stephens, who studied several classic courtroom dramas when writing The Trial of Ubu, says he enjoyed working within strict conventions and following the formal pattern of prosecution, defence and cross-examination. “There’s a kind of dialectic in that that is meat and drink to the dramatist,” he says.

But while both the theatre and the courtroom are concerned with examining human behaviour, Stephens stresses that a good drama will play on the difference between the two: “What theatre can do is explore the mess of human behaviour in a way that a court cannot, because the court is the room in which law is implemented. Law can’t accommodate contradiction. And drama needs to accommodate contradiction. That’s quite an exciting contrast between the work of the dramatist and the work of the lawyer.”

It’s often dramatic irony that makes for a meaty courtroom drama. The audience can be privy to the pressures outside the courtroom, personal or political, that have an impact on the action within. Hence we get David and Goliath stories and examples of individual conscience taking on the establishment (in Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, for example, or Bolt’s Man for All Seasons).

We see moral quandaries and personal complications, such as the alcoholic lawyer seeking redemption in the 1982 film The Verdict, or bigger issues such as Aids (Philadelphia), intellectual freedom (Inherit the Wind) or racial prejudice (To Kill a Mockingbird). There is a huge role for dramatic irony – particularly if the audience knows that someone did or didn’t commit a crime. A subtle drama can reveal not just the scope, but also the limits of the law and explore complexities of justice, guilt and integrity.

“Courtroom drama works because we all have relationships with our own guilt and innocence,” says Stephens. “We have a basic human need for justice and there’s a real distillation of those things in the courtroom. A good courtroom drama will cut to the quick of the difference between fairness and justice.”

He recalls an inspiring conversation he had with playwright Edward Bond that touched on the relationship between drama and law. Bond conceived it as more than aesthetic: “[He said] it’s not a coincidence that the culture that first evolved political and legal structures was also the culture that first evolved theatre: the ancient Greeks. That there’s a direct relationship between theatre and the law, theatre and the state, and it’s the work of the theatre to pursue the interrogation of the moral concreteness on which law appears to be built ... That’s what theatre’s for.”

‘The Trial of Ubu’, Hampstead Theatre, London, January 18-February 23. www.hampsteadtheatre.com

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