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 Kristin falls asleep, 20 pages of Strindberg are skipped and, instead, the sleeper’s dreams are imagined.
For traditionalists it’s the kind of thing to guarantee cardiac unhappiness. Mitchell’s 2006 NT chiaroscuro remake of Chekhov’s The Seagull, for example—English by Martin Crimp—had some, public and critics alike, groaning in their seats. Then, in a Times interview in a year later, the National’s chief Nicholas Hytner rounded on “dead white men”—certain well-known critics—for dissing Mitchell not just because of her high-art “Europeanness” but, more controversially, her sex (Hytner was also defending Kneehigh’s Emma Rice).
Let’s nail that jelly. Prominent women theatre directors in Britain have been rare, but things have, interestingly, changed even since the men-critics episode. Along with Emma Rice, Marianne Elliott has had regular successes at the NT. Josie Rourke now runs the Donmar Warehouse. Vicky Featherstone is about to take over at the Royal Court. Erica Whyman is second in command at the Royal Shakespeare Company. When it comes to women making big theatre waves, are we past misogyny?
“No,” Mitchell says. “And it’s the same in Germany. Anywhere. Lots of things knotted together create the problem. Part of it is biology and therefore to do with children [Mitchell has a seven-year-old girl]. Another strand is connected to a different way of perceiving and experiencing the world. Because one way, the male, dominates, the other way can be seen as wrong, as opposed to being celebrated as different. Maybe it’s also to do with behaviour, presentation. Selling.”
Mitchell should know. After Oxford in the mid-1980s and assisting at the Royal Shakespeare Company she took off for Russia and Eastern Europe to explore theatre there, and, back in the UK, founded an influential but financially threadbare company, Classics on a Shoestring. She wanted to do her own thing, based on her foreign discoveries. She enjoyed and enjoys difficulty.
In a parochial theatre culture, it was always going to be a fight. Mitchell’s schooling was Continental. Theatre in many non-English cultures, especially German and French, is seen as a forum to discuss, dissect and even quarrel with well-known plays, which can confer disproportionate authority on a director. The British mainstream famously resists textual sabotage, and this is what Mitchell has been repeatedly accused of. An actor who worked for her in the 1990s observes: “She is a bit hard core and this marks her out. But she doesn’t mind the knocks.”
Today, at 48, Mitchell is invited to top theatres across Europe. She directs what she likes, opera included (from Aix to the Royal Opera House), with a British production team she’s worked with for years. Shows in Britain are piling up for 2014—The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic, Così fan tutte at English National Opera—and in 2009 she got an OBE. Until December of last year she’d been an associate director of the National for a decade.
With success like that, the knives will be out for her production of Fräulein Julie. Mitchell, who’ll ignore them, makes no inflated claims for the show:
“It’s a simple experiment. You can get the whole story with the subtraction of acres of material. I do this only because it’s a very owned play. My production visited Ingmar Bergman’s theatre in Stockholm, which was scary. I thought the audience would fall ill. But they were fine! They had a vertiginous time.”