The Trial of Ubu, Hampstead, London
The Madness of George III, Apollo, Shaftesbury, London
Shallow Slumber, Soho Upstairs, London

A century on, an aburdist tyrant is put on trial at last; George, meanwhile, struggles to get the measure of Alan

King Ubu is a glove puppet going psycho. In the prologue to Simon Stephens's new play The Trial of Ubu, as staged by Katie Mitchell, this miniature scabrous clown, resembling Mr Punch, zips around in a sharp-edged square of light.

Spouting obscenities, he's like a brat with coprolalia, or Freud's id personified on a wildly amoral spree. He's also a despot in the making.

The prologue is, in fact, a condensed version of Alfred Jarry's proto-Absurdist shocker, Ubu Roi, from 1896. So we see Ubu bump off King Wenceslas, seize the crown, then blithely oversee the disappearance of the realm's judges and top-hatted bankers, plus any plebs resisting his taxes. Everyone is tossed over his shoulder, into oblivion.

Suddenly the puppet-play portal snaps shut, and a larger, life-size window slides open in Lizzie Clachan's superb set – a towering wall fronting the stage. In a bold shift, it's now the 21st century and the actresses Kate Duchêne and Nikki Amuka-Bird are sitting in a hushed translation booth with headsets and microphones. They are interpreters, perched above an international tribunal at The Hague where, we gather, Ubu stands accused of crimes against humanity.

Mitchell makes this very low key, with a nod to the Tricycle's tribunal plays but, to boot, putting the proceedings at one further remove by having Duchêne and Amuka-Bird relay everything the judge, lawyers and witnesses say. What's enthralling is how the women's tone of voice – quiet and cool – is belied by physical intimations of tension. Amuka-Bird moistening her mouth with a spray. Duchêne seems steadier. However, as graphic descriptions of mass graves leak into the arid legalese, she halts, as if unable to suppress sobs. Or is she, unnervingly, laughing? It's a brilliant stroke of ambiguity when Duchêne's character develops a heavy cold: merely a medical irritation, yet one that makes her sound tearful.

To what extent are these interpreters detached? Are they twitchy just because it's a high-profile case? Alternatively, are they humane and thus finding the evidence harrowing? Or might they each be harbouring undeclared biases? The Trial of Ubu raises questions about disinterest, including the border line between the judiciously neutral and the damnably callous. Both actresses are terrific, also creating time-lapse scenes where they mouth silently at surreal speed, while their bodies jump and jerk.

Nonetheless, Mitchell's hints of enigmatic menace can end up looking like obscure loose ends. There are comparatively lame scenes on the sidelines too: a jailer effing at a frail Ubu (Paul McCleary); off-duty lawyers in a wooden altercation. Oh, and did I mention the puppet play's dark farce falls flat (its direction delegated to cast members)?

In Alan Bennett's much-loved history play The Madness of George III, David Haig's George is a jolly decent fellow, loyal husband and responsible ruler. That's until he goes insane, aged 50, suffering from what would, today, probably be diagnosed as porphyria. His body is wracked by burning pains and incontinence, while his behaviour degenerates into infantile rages, Ubuish splurges of rude words, and much shameless lusting after his wife's Lady of the Bedchamber. While casting off all self-restraint, Haig's George has also been fretting about the control he's lost over the American colonies, and the Prince of Wales, who's a power-hungry, heartless fop.

This is an intriguing royal portrait: comical, tragical, political, somatic and psychological. A gaggle of grandiose quacks exacerbate his torments with purging and blistering. Finally, a provincial ur-psychotherapist (a bespectacled Clive Francis, with a touch of Bennett) forces the unruly monarch to obey his strictures, and thereby George learns to govern himself again.

Christopher Luscombe's production is handsomely staged in period costume, but with much milking of Bennett's quips and echoes of King Lear when a lighter touch would better serve. Some of the supporting cast also waggle around on the apron stage peculiarly like marionettes, unable to determine if they should address each other or the audience.

In Soho Theatre's studio space, a dangerous blast from the past has turned up on Moira's doorstep. Amy Cudden's gamine Dawn is just out of prison and wants her ex-social worker to let her in; Alexandra Gilbreath's Moira isn't keen. They stand locked in a battle of wills in Shallow Slumber, a two-hander by rising playwright Chris Lee, played out on a narrow, shadowy strip of stage in Mary Nighy's claustrophobic production.

Once over the threshold, Cudden sits hugging her knees, beaming with relief, but perhaps with a glimmer of threatening triumphalism. Unkempt in her dressing gown, Gilbreath glares balefully, though prone to be a soft touch. Lee's play (drawing on his own career in social work) moves backwards through time, exposing both women's scars. The script could do with some stern paring, but Nighy and Cudden are names to watch, and Gilbreath is searingly good.

'The Trial of Ubu' (020-7722 9301) to 18 Feb; 'The Madness of George III' (0844 412 4658) to 31 Mar; 'Shallow Slumber' (020-7478 0100) to 18 Feb

Next Week:

Kate Bassett will be in attendance at She Stoops to Conquer at the NT

Theatre Choice

Rafe Spall and Sally Hawkins are droll and heartbreaking in Constellations, Nick Payne's looping portrait of a love affair replayed in parallel universes, at London's Royal Court Upstairs (to 11 Feb).

The new nanny is a sinister spanner in the works in Our New Girl by Nancy Harris, at London's Bush Theatre (to 11 Feb).

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine