After trying to work together on a show for years, Katie Mitchell and Theatre des Bouffes du Nord are finally bringing La Maladie de la Mort to the Edinburgh International Festival. The ‘iconoclastic’ director tells Eleanor Turney how combining live performance with film techniques is dragging theatre into the modern age
Theatre des Bouffes du Nord will make its Edinburgh International Festival debut this month, with a three-show residency. The company, closely associated with theatre colossus Peter Brook, brings The Beggar’s Opera, directed by Robert Carsen, The Prisoner, co-written and co-directed by Brook and long-time collaborator Marie-Helene Estienne, and a new version of Marguerite Duras’ La Maladie de la Mort, directed by Katie Mitchell and written by Alice Birch.
Mitchell and Bouffes du Nord have been trying to work together for a while, as have Bouffes and EIF. Fergus Linehan, EIF director, describes “chasing Katie around for years” to bring a show to the festival. This year everyone’s diaries finally aligned.
Mitchell says: “A couple of years ago I was asked to direct something at Bouffes du Nord and I said yes, but this is an iconic space for any British artist so we had to find the right show.
“There are three fantastic French writers: Duras, De Beauvoir and Yourcenar. I wanted to do a piece of work from one of those three. I didn’t feel very confident doing any more live performance that was just going to rely on the actors in the space, because Brook himself has explored every possible avenue for live performance. I didn’t feel I could offer more in any way, or meet him halfway.”
Instead, Mitchell focuses on what she calls “live cinema”, which mixes live performance with live filming, so the audience has two views of the action. “It’s a different type of theatre experience. There’s an egalitarian aspect of it – in a normal theatre, by the time you’re in row six or behind, you’re not seeing the detail. You can’t see the 200 muscles in the face. But using the camera means that the detail is the same for every seat, and I like the politics of that.
“This wouldn’t stand up as a film in its own right; it only functions when it’s made live in front of the audience. I love that it has a relationship to film, but it is totally not film. I like the intellectual pickle of that. What is film, what is theatre, we ask ourselves? What’s live, what’s not live? Where are the limits of live performance and filmed performance? I like the discourse of the technique.
“Other people are maybe not embracing it and tend to ask: ‘Oh, but is the theatre?’ I find that a bit of a dull response, because it isn’t about pigeonholing things – it offers a conversation. We’re in a visual age and we experience the real world mediated by technology and image. Theatre has to enter that conversation.”
La Maladie de la Mort opens in Paris before going to Edinburgh, and then touring. I ask Mitchell if the country in which it will be performed affects her thinking and directing.
“If you’re going to do Marguerite Duras at the Bouffes du Nord, you are thinking about the French audience first and foremost,” she says. “She is an iconic writer. You’re thinking about the French audience in terms of anxiety and clarity. Of course, one is also ensuring that the work is totally clear, well-communicated and not resting on linguistic prejudice – for non-French speakers. You have to be thoughtful about that.
“As a British artist working with an international team, you’re offering up something to the French landscape that they really feel they own. It’s like a German director doing Shakespeare in England. That’s a very particular moment. They’re going to think: ‘I don’t know if this British artist has got our Duras or not. Has she got it wrong? Why’s she done it like that?’
“Whereas performing in Edinburgh, it’s going to be more of an English-speaking audience and they’ll see it as a foreign thing, so they’re going to look at it and not feel the same sense of ownership that the audience in Paris feel. And that’s a very different relationship. It’s all part of the intellectual excitement of making work in different countries.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
As a temp on the reception desk for the Prudential Life Insurance Company.
What was your first theatre job?
I worked in the admin office at the King’s Head Theatre in London.
What is your next job?
Directing Janacek’s opera Jenufa at Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To hold my nerve and only make the work I wanted to without bending my ideas to please others.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been?
A visual artist.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
No, I am totally scientific about my approach to my craft.
Mitchell has mostly worked abroad recently, particularly in France and Germany. “That was the work that was available and interesting and exciting,” she explains. “By chance, the first show I made in Germany was enormously successful. It started a career that I was not expecting, in Germany.
“And then I stepped in at the last minute to do a new George Benjamin opera, Written on Skin, which opened up a new career in France. These things were just chance, and then other things evolved. And then, over time, the work on offer in countries like Germany and France and Holland was just so extraordinary.
“But really, I’m only abroad for about two months every year, because my child is here in the UK, happily at her state school, so I am here, but I may be preparing or rehearsing shows that’ll be produced on mainland Europe. I’m physically here a lot – I’m experiencing the horrors of this new world.”
Speaking of horrors, one can’t have a conversation with a director who works mainly in Europe with mention of Brexit. Mitchell starts out cautiously optimistic: “I can’t imagine it’s going to be visas… I just think it would be so catastrophic for business. The culture industry is big industry for the UK, it’s not one to be sniffed at and it earns a lot of money.
“I’m part of a group of British artists in the theatre world who go out and do good cultural business, if we want to be brutal about it, and that benefits the UK. I’m imagining, rather like all business people, that we’re hoping for a sensible arrangement so we won’t be limited.
“But even if we are limited, I will absolutely always do it and go there and get there somehow. On principle, even if it’s really effortful. I love belonging to a larger community of artists and people, I love the privilege of that. You learn a level of tolerance and compassion and understanding of difference that is immeasurable.”
Mitchell is described on the EIF website as “iconoclastic”, and I wonder if this is quite fair. Linehan says there’s some truth to the label, as Mitchell “pulls things apart… She goes into works and does not take them at face value”.
He adds: “If you go to a Katie Mitchell production of a work you’re very familiar with, you should know that she’s probably going to have a different read on it. The main thing I love about Katie’s work is the clarity of it. It is so precise and her ideas are crystal clear. You may choose to like it or not like, accept it or not accept it, but it is a uniquely clear voice in theatre at the moment.”
Mitchell herself laughs. “It’s not a bad label to have, is it? It would be awful to be conservative and boring. If that’s the opposite, then I’ll take iconoclastic. But really, that’s for other people to say; I’m so busy making things that I don’t really have a sense of labelling what it might mean. The inside experience of it is that you don’t notice the labels, you only notice how exciting it is to collaborate with people, and moments when audience members get what you’ve made and it means something to them.”
La Maladie de la Mort is at the Lyceum as part of Edinburgh International Festival, August 16-19, and transfers to the Barbican, London, October 3-6