Prior to The Trial of Ubu at the Hampstead Theatre, I'd seen two plays directed by Katie Mitchell. The first, ...some trace of her, took my breath away and the second, A Woman Killed With Kindness, made me angry at Mitchell.
She is certainly a director that divides opinion and in a way, I like that because it makes for a far easier review.
Sitting down to watch The Trial of Ubu I knew nothing about it, let alone its roots in the absurdest play Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry which in 1896 caused riots. The audience of the time weren't quite ready for Jarry's crude and cutting satire on power, greed and evil with the first word spoken his own variation of the French word for shit.
I can certainly see what attracted Katie Mitchell to directing Simon Stephen's play. There is, after all, a lot to get your teeth into with absurdity and the surreal. But was this a 'trace' or a 'kindness'?
*This is quite a detailed description of the play, some of which may be deemed as spoilers*
Well as the title suggests the play is about a trial but we have to know the crimes levelled at Ubu first and this is how the story starts. The Hampstead theatre stage has been wood-panelled off from the audience, floor to ceiling, and as the lights dim a small rectangle about two thirds the way up the panelling, in the centre opens up, sort of like a serving hatch or in this case space for a puppet show.
A set of grotesque Punch and Judy-esque puppets tell the story of Ubu who has his King murdered, seizes the thrown and then lets power go to his head murdering and torturing anyone who gets in his way or doesn't like or even just for fun.
It is very well done and an inspired decision not only a firm nod to Jarry absurdist source material but also a powerful medium for the subject matter. Yes puppets. The child-like story-telling sits as uncomfortably with the subject matter as the behaviour of Ubu sits with common human morality and principles.
When the rein of Ubu - an embodiment of as many dictators you can care to recall (or Tony Blair as @MrBrianHolmes suggested) - comes to an end the puppet show is over and a new one begins, one without puppets: his trial in an international criminal court.