Director Katie Mitchell is at war with Britain’s parochial theatre cultureby James Woodall / March 20, 2013 / Leave a comment
Katie Mitchell’s new adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie makes inventive use of live video © Stephen Cummiskey
On a cold Berlin morning I’m in the café of one of Europe’s great theatres, the Schaubühne, to meet the director Katie Mitchell. Given her reputation as a fierce iconoclast, encountering Mitchell in person is a surprise. The first things you notice about her are a winning friendliness—she smiles openly—and intense pale blue eyes. In a high laugh she apologises for being late. She’s been waiting in the wrong café: her favourite, next to the Schaubühne.
She’s in Berlin for The Yellow Wallpaper, a production based on a short story by the late 19th-century American writer and feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Mitchell is a ferociously hard worker—for the Schaubühne she’s devised a technologically complex staging, set in modern Germany, which uses gauzes, water and five live cameras. In the play a post-natal depressive hallucinates about another woman behind yellow wallpaper and tears it all off. It’s in the mould of Roman Polanski’s film Repulsion, Mitchell explains.
Back home, Mitchell shows in this vein have earned her a reputation for bleakness. Some critics hate her. True, her aesthetic is severe; she strips plays down, turns them inside out and challenges them. Her visually driven stagings of classics (Greek, Russian, Scandinavian), and of work by British moderns such as Martin Crimp and Simon Stephens, as well as a groundbreaking, video-savvy adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, have attracted as much vitriol as admiration.
“Britain’s most overrated director,” brayed Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times in response to her 2005 National Theatre production of Strindberg’s A Dream Play. He compounded the attack a year later by claiming that Mitchell “lays out a play on a slab like an anatomy lesson and makes performance art with its entrails.”
I do not allude to these barbs with Mitchell, though we are here in fact to talk about Strindberg. Her German version of Miss Julie, created at the Schaubühne in 2010, visits London’s Barbican at the end of April. The play is performed, radically, solely from the point of view of the servant, Kristin (the wonderful Jule Böwe). Inventive use is made of live video again, a technique evolved from Waves (as the production was actually called). There’s a score for a cellist. In one important scene, when…