Exclusive: Ubu team on trial-free working

Published January 16, 2012

Two of British theatre’s greatest and most European of talents, writer Simon Stephens and director Katie Mitchell, joined forces for the first time last year for the Royal Court production of Wastwater. Now reunited for the Hampstead theatre’s The Trial Of Ubu, they let Official London Theatre peek into their professional relationship:

Simon Stephens on Katie Mitchell:

The playwright’s relationship with a director is one built on both power and vulnerability. The curious nature of our theatre culture, built, as it is, around the vision of the playwright, affords us playwrights a curious kudos and high status in a British rehearsal room. But we are beholden to our directors. Without them our plays stay in our drawers or on our hard drives. We need somebody to stick their neck out and have the courage to lead a room full of actors and designers through the minefields that our plays can so often prove.

Katie directed Wastwater last year with a clarity that was inspiring and a deference that was humbling. But what I love about her work on that play and what she is bringing to The Trial Of Ubu, as it rehearses at the Hampstead theatre, is her capacity to realise and stage that which is subliminal in my plays. At times it is as though she understands more about my writing than I do. So she is committed to my vision but she also releases elements in my work that I may not be aware of.

In Wastwater she found the isolation and dislocation in my characters and gave it a balletic form. She also brought a poetry to my vision of an apocalypse. In The Trial Of Ubu she has found a way of staging the despair at the heart of attempts in Western Governments to clarify and contain the horrors that our century of foreign policy has unleashed. 

She divides critics in this country of course. This is largely, I think, because she works with a sense of vision. I get the sense that critics in this country would prefer our directors simply to teach their actors how to read the play and have them stand on stage in such a way that means they can be heard at the back of the circle. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with Katie because she offers so much more than that. It bewilders me that so many of our critics have an imagination that seems to take against her for exactly the same reason I value her. When she releases the subliminal in my plays or Martin Crimp’s plays she can be scolded but not savaged. When she does it with equal intelligence and clarity on Chekhov or Euripides she is treated like an errant sixth-former.

This response shames our critics. Her work has a visual confidence that stands above many of her peers. The performances she releases from her actors have a metabolic truthfulness. Her productions are unusual in the UK as well because they are underpinned by rigorous ideas. This intellectual force and aesthetic clarity is deeply valued outside the UK. In Germany, France, Russia and Scandinavia she is one of the few British directors who are considered worthy of respect. There, it seems, they are less afraid of ideas or aesthetics. Or maybe they’re just less afraid of women.

But I also want to say this. Her rehearsal rooms at their best are rooms alive with activity and fun. She is rigorous in her attempt to keep people thinking. She treats actors as though they’re adults. She avoids the first read through as far as she possibly can. She instead will set her actors specific and demanding reading tasks that avoid the kind of conversations that can head so quickly into dreary analogies between the play and things that happened at drama school.

She watches like a hawk, she works hard, but she also has a surprising sense of cheekiness, British sauciness, gossip, compassion and fun. And she buys great biscuits.

She also has a laugh which is about as dirty as Sid James’s. I consider my main job in rehearsal to be the release of that laugh as often as possible.

Katie Mitchell on Simon Stephens:

Simon always arrives in rehearsals with a thought about something that he is reading or thinking about. This morning it was Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature. We met by chance on the tube and as we travelled up the escalator he told me about a book that I would love. “It says that violence is on the decline and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.” He was right. I would love it.

We chatted about the two world wars as we headed up the stairs at Swiss Cottage and Simon brought up the death of Harry Patch, the last British survivor of the First World War. We are both very occupied with thinking of which shows to make in 2014, the year that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the First World War. A few weeks ago, Simon showed me the footage of the last interview with Patch on YouTube and introduced me to the song that Thom Yorke from Radiohead had written after hearing Patch talk one morning on Radio Four. Simon was very impressed by the honesty and speed of Yorke’s response. I am always impressed by the same qualities in Simon’s conversation and writing.

Afterwards he started a conversation about noticing how hands-off I am with the actors. I set them tasks and let them get on without feeling I need to lead the room or talk or tell them what to do. He tells me that this is very similar to how he would teach his secondary school students.

At a deep level Simon’s teaching experience still underpins his thinking. He only taught professionally for two years before starting on a playwriting career, but those two years are still very close to him. That and his experience as a father.

I remember when we were working on Wastwater, Simon brought up a Russian pedagogue called Vygotsky whose work had influenced his teaching methods. We started talking about the way in which we had both been trained by Russian thinkers. The biggest influences on my work were the Russian directors I studied in Moscow, St Petersburg, Tblisi and Vilnius in 1989 on a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travel Fellowship. All the practitioners I studied with were developing the legacy of Stanislavsky in different ways. It made us both chortle when Simon discovered that Stanislavsky and Vygotsky knew each other. It sort of cemented our working relationship and fuelled our constant conversations about the difference between European and British theatre.

But it’s not only Simon’s intellectual brilliance that I so enjoy when we are working together. It’s also his precision and rigor. He will always put his finger on the flaws in my directing and he will always do so with respect and warmth. And he is very canny in how he handles the actors, both their vanities and their insecurities.  He is very very funny, and has a knack of being able to crack the perfect joke when a rehearsal room is tipping towards despair or unnecessary anxiety.

Today he sits in the corner of the rehearsal room taking the Post It notes out of a book of photographs called Century. This was the book that he looked at when he was writing Ubu’s closing statement in the trial. It’s an enormously heavy book and has photographs of the main violent events worldwide from 1899 until 1999. He looks up and says, “It’s very interesting, isn’t it, the different emotional impacts of statistics and images – the statistics in Pinker’s book and the images in Century.” I nod. He slowly turns the pages and I can see him sink deep inside the images and become rather quiet and introverted. A few minutes later we start doing the sound effects for the puppet play at the beginning of the show, and I see him quickly and sharply close the book, slide onto a chair and start to smile as the sound designer adds in the whoopee cushion wet fart sounds and comic strip car horns. “That’s really great,” he says, “I love that.”

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