Dictatorship, Katie Mitchell style

Love her or loathe her, Katie Mitchell is back in Hampstead- giving another classic play the Mitchell treatment

�Ubu Rio (Ubu the King) is an 1896 play by Alfred Jarry. The play is a satire of power and greed and the complacency of bourgeois society. Katie Mitchell has made it into a puppet show. “It is unfair to assume that everyone is going to have knowledge of this play from 1896. It is going to be a rather macabre Punch and Judy show, a condensed version of the original,” says the director, who is returning to the Hampstead Theatre this month.

The puppet show is at the beginning of The Trial of Ubu, a piece of theatre inspired by the 1896 play with a contemporary twist.

In writer Simon Stephens’ version, Ubu is a dictator charged with crimes against humanity and is standing trial at a UN-constituted international tribunal.

Stephens was asked by Sebastian Neublyn to write a companion piece to the original and as Mitchell says: “Hampstead found out about it and very cunningly and cleverly scheduled it.”

Mitchell and Stephens seem to be thick as thieves since their work on Wastwater at the Royal Court last year, which formed their long-time friendship into an enviable theatre pairing.

“Simon and I were always together on it,” says Mitchell, referring to Ubu. “I was fascinated by it. It was a perfect gig.”

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In what seems to be a tradition for both of them, the pair have taken the topics thrown up by Ubu and selected a novel vantage point.

They found out that the International Criminal Court has a myriad of translator booths, with teams of translators who are mostly women. Their idea was to approach the trial from the point of view of the women translating it.

“We are very used to courtroom dramas because of television and theatre – the Tricycle does courtroom dramas really well,” says Mitchell. “So it is a little exhausted. This is a different point of view.”

The puppet show is also different, though for Mitchell seems manageable.

“Telling a story about a psychotic autocrat who takes power using puppets is a pretty straightforward thing to do,” she says, with a hint of jest.

This is not the first time that Mitchell has directed a new twist on an old play. Since the start of her career at the King’s Head Theatre, she has had quite a rough ride through an experimental career in theatre.


Alongside a healthy dose of praise (mostly from the industry), she has more than once been accused, by critics, of ‘roughing up’ the classics and has a reputation for being a bit of an auteur.

Sometimes her plays receive a good reaction, sometimes a bad one, but they always receive a reaction.

“I do expect it,” she says. “What’s interesting about it is that even when I do something which isn’t an old play that I’m reimagining, and I do it cleanly and efficiently, people say ‘I didn’t see any of her normal stuff’.”

She adds: “It’s like turbulence on a flight. I just belt up and ride through it. It is not my intention to create an angry response. I want to create clear, sharp and sensitive work. That is my aim.”

With this production, Mitchell’s auteur label has been put to the test: Hattie Morahan, the lead actor, pulled out of the show just three days before rehearsals to work on another project.

Mitchell’s reaction is tempered. “I was shocked at the first moment of hearing but I respect why she had to do it. A film and television career is different. There are some opportunities you can’t turn down.”

In Morahan’s place is Nikki Amuka-Bird, who Mitchell seems pleased with.

Amuka-Bird, along with the rest of the cast, have all had the reportedly rigourous Mitchell experience during rehearsals.

“Many enjoy the process. It is about knowing that you are playing a person who has a past and wishes for the future.

“We’ve also been looking at the courtroom geography so the actors know everything about the booths that the translators work in.”

This, Mitchell admits, even includes minute details like the temperature of the booths.

“It’s those tiny details that help performers get into their character. It’s those simple and concrete practical things that are important.”