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Katie Mitchell: ‘I was uncomfortable coming back to work in the UK’

katie mitchell Katie Mitchell. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

It’s a strong word, exile. It comes with connotations: hardship, criminality, rejection, regret. You get forced into exile, either by others or by impossible circumstances. At best, exile is the least worst option; at worst, it’s the only one available.

Katie Mitchell has spent the past five years in exile – at least, from a myopic British perspective. She was, so the story goes, forced out of this country by constant critical scepticism and a lack of organisational support, fleeing to Europe to make ambitious work, most of which hasn’t even made it back to Britain – not even at the Barbican Centre. Those pesky Europeans and their pesky proper arts funding.

Britain hasn’t had a theatre exile since Peter Brook left for Paris in the late 1960s. France funded individuals rather than institutions. “If I’d stayed in London,” he told his biographer, “I’d have just done one play after another.” Instead, he founded the International Centre for Theatre Research, and his practice transformed. Not even Simon McBurney or Declan Donnellan, two of the UK’s most internationally acclaimed theatremakers, have won exile status.

It’s eight years since Mitchell first worked in Germany. In that time, she’s become one of the most respected directors on the continent. She’s had two shows selected for Theatertreffen in Berlin, the annual showcase of the best German-language productions of the past year (and “the thing I covet more than anything else”), three for Avignon and another for Salzburg. Last year, Amsterdam’s Stadsschouwburg, home to Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep, named her its ‘Brandstichter’ (‘Firestarter’), producing a five-show retrospective. “Can you imagine?,” she exclaims. Her 2019 diary is already filling up, says her agent. “She could be so much busier if there were two of her.”

So when does a cultural exile become a cultural export?

Mitchell is already sitting waiting when I arrive at the National Theatre press office. She is a fastidious timekeeper with a timetable to match. Immediately after our 45 minutes, she is due downstairs to see Rufus Norris.

Dressed, as ever, in black, she’s a lighter presence than you expect – even after people have told you to expect as much. Photographs make her look serious, stern even. So does her theatre. In fact, she’s almost always half-smiling.

She’s back in a building that used to be a home. Mitchell was an associate director here for six years under Nicholas Hytner, before finding herself sidelined. Even Daniel Rosenthal’s 1,000-page history of the building skims over her contribution. Norris has invited her back to direct only the second major revival of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed – a famously difficult play, full of shock and gore and impossible stage directions. Mitchell is intent on reasserting its feminism. “It gives me Grace,” she says, “and this other woman without a name, a peep show dancer in the sex industry. How many other plays are about that?”

Ophelia's Zimmer. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola
Ophelia’s Zimmer. Photo: Gianmarco Bresadola

It might mark the end of that supposed exile. Vicky Featherstone has opened the Royal Court to her, and Ophelia’s Zimmer, a new take on Hamlet, seen from Ophelia’s perspective, opens there in May. It is followed, at the Barbican, by a large-scale multimedia piece, The Forbidden Zone, which premiered in Salzburg two years ago.

British audiences (and critics) don’t really know Mitchell’s art any more – not fully, at any rate. What we’ve seen in the past four years is only a small portion of it: the environmental performance lectures, a children’s show, a multimedia Strindberg, a naturalistic Chekhov, and a couple of experimental operas, too.

Here, she’s still very strongly associated with naturalism – and a specific kind of naturalism at that. Over two decades, she applied rigorous Stanislavskian principles to texts, most radically to Greek tragedies, and most brilliantly to Chekhov’s major works. The last of these, The Cherry Orchard, ran at the Young Vic in 2014: a stunning production shot through with anxiety; skittering and jittery, breathless with panic.

In fact, she was “very uncomfortable coming back to making work here. I really lost my bearings because I thought, ‘Who is this audience?’. I had this awful memory of the audience member who wrote in the programme ‘RUBBISH, RUBBISH, RUBBISH’ and I get quite angry.” That actually happened: it was The Seagull in 2006 (the audience member was kind enough to send her the programme).

Her naturalism is not that of other theatre directors. It bears the hallmarks of her time in eastern Europe, aged 25, observing strict Stanislavskians such as Alexander Vassiliev and Lev Dodin, and it makes no concessions to existing on stage. “The audience is like a fly on the wall,” she explains. Once the fourth wall comes in, it’s in. No projecting, no signposting, no looking out to the audience. “Everything has to be lifelike. Every tiny detail of human behaviour is put in unedited, as opposed to airbrushed with conventional polite gestures.”

The result, far from easing the ‘suspension of disbelief’, can be uncanny – so precise and articulated, it looks choreographed and bizarre. “How we are in life, if you really scrutinise it, is not smooth and beautiful. It’s odd and strange. I’m much more interested in lifelike behaviour than the romantic production of well-spoken language. I’m interested in audiences recognising themselves in the behaviour that they see on stage.”

This is the driver behind Mitchell’s rehearsal process – notoriously demanding as it is. She documented it in her handbook, A Director’s Craft and, broadly speaking, it combines fine-combed text work with intricate backstory. It’s incredibly demanding of actors. Some thrive on that, and many – Hattie Morahan, Paul Ready, Kate Duchene, for example – have worked with her time and time again. Michelle Terry, playing Grace in Cleansed at the National, finds it thrilling. “Her level of interrogation surpasses anyone I’ve ever worked with elsewhere.” And that remains true, but her practice has shifted in recent years. “It’s quite a rare treat now, to do naturalism,” says Mitchell. “I haven’t really done so many well-made plays for the last six, seven, eight years.”

A decade ago, Mitchell began a collaboration with the video designer Leo Warner. They set about trying to stage Waves, Virginia Woolf’s experimental, experiential novel, as a kind of live film. On stage, you would see an actress standing next to a pane of glass, held by a stagehand, spraying water, while a foley artist tilted a rainmaker. Around them would be camera operators, actors speaking voice-overs into microphones, bodies setting the next scene. On screen, a character appeared in a window on a rainy day, her thoughts floating past in voice-over.

At the time, I took it for a postmodern spin on Brecht; a way of dislocating the act of representation from the end product of it. It highlighted the labour and artifice involved. Sometimes, the disjunctures were almost poetic: one actor’s hands tied another actor’s shoelaces; somebody stood in for someone else’s reflection. It was, lest anyone forget, playful. In The Guardian, Lyn Gardner suggested that the pair “have created an entirely new art form”.

For Mitchell, however, the camerawork was an extension of her naturalism. “I can do thought,” she explains. “The cameras simply get me close to the detail of behaviour: the tiny flicker of an eye, a little muscle on the cheek. I’m more and more interested in what’s going on in people’s heads.”

Watching it back today, on screen in the National Theatre archive, Waves looks quite primitive. What was being created live wasn’t a full film exactly, but a set of filmic images: snippets, screensavers. At some points, there is no cinematic element at all: just sound in the darkness or an actor reading aloud from behind a desk.

In the decade since, the work has expanded exponentially. The shows, now, are proper live cinema: fully fledged feature films – performed, shot, scored and cut in the moment. Doing so, says Warner, made it all the more theatrical. “What we discovered was that it became even more exciting for the audience, certainly for the performers, when there was an absolute imperative to move through the piece. It’s incredibly high octane, because it’s got to be 100% right, and that provides an energy that I’ve rarely experienced on stage.”

We’re back to choreography again, everyone hitting the right mark at the right moment. The more complex that becomes, the riskier the performance.

More complex is only the half of it. There was a train in Waves: a toy model that drove a couple of inches through a few plastic trees. There’s another in The Forbidden Zone, decommissioned, with its fixtures and fittings removed. The structure comes apart. Moving landscapes are projected into the windows. Lighting tricks simulate passing trains and stations. “The thing that really sells it, though,” says Warner, “is the actors: those tiny movements, constantly recalibrating your balance with the train’s motion.”

In other words, it’s still motored by Mitchell’s meticulousness. This is what comes up time and again – her rigour, her precision, her clarity of thought. Even interviewing her, I feel it. She makes you up your game.

And yet she is, perhaps surprisingly, an absolute pragmatist – almost a stage manager in the director’s hot seat. “There are all these concrete components that have to be organised, and very carefully organised, second by second,” she explains. “It’s like sculpting, because it’s a three-dimensional object. Theatre’s a moving sculpture.

“Directing means you have to be on top of at least 10 amazingly complex tools – the use of sound, of light, of design, of costume, of video, whatever. It takes about 30 ears to get on top of it so that you can confidently adjust any of those knowns and get a very definite, clear, focused outcome.” Directing is, she says, “micromanagement”.


Q&A: Katie Mitchell

What was your first job? Typing up scripts at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington.
What was your next job? Lucia Di Lammermoor at Royal Opera House.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? That the role of the director is to make sure everything is clear to an audience.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Pina Bausch.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Stay calm and take a bottle of water.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? A visual artist or a writer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? Nope.

There’s another Mitchell myth. “Everyone constructs a picture of me as if I’m just on my own doing all these bad things to texts, but actually I’m flanked by fantastic artists.” She has a pool of collaborators – writers, designers, technical artists – all of whom criss-cross on different projects. Each keeps count of their KM number, and each testifies to the freedom of that collaboration. “Often, in rehearsal rooms, she’ll be in the middle of everything, quite still,” says writer Duncan Macmillan, a KM6. “What she’s really aiming for is legibility and clarity, accuracy and truthfulness.”

When you look at Mitchell’s multimedia productions, something interesting stands out. Very few of them – just two – take plays as their source material. Most are novels or collected texts or just stories. Partly, I suspect, that’s a matter of subjectivity – novels trade in thought processes and theatre deals with action – but for Mitchell it’s more than that.

“There’s a feminist agenda here as well, remember. There’s only a limited amount of material written by women or with big female roles in it, so – and I was unconscious of this, but now I’m really conscious of it – there’s also a responsibility to generate a new body of work, not just for me, but for other artists.”

The Forbidden Zone is a case in point. Asked by the Salzburg Festival to mark the centenary of the First World War, Mitchell was determined to avoid the familiar imagery of the front line. Instead, she and Macmillan approached the story of Clara Immerwahr, whose husband, Fritz Harber, invented a method to weaponise gas, reaping devastation on the Western Front. Immerwahr spoke out against that work and especially its use in war and, eventually, publicly killed herself. “The reason people kill themselves can never be reduced,” says Macmillan, “but it’s been minimised to the act of a jealous and depressed woman. We wanted to rehabilitate the political gesture in that activism.”

It’s easy to get stuck on style with Mitchell, but push past it and you see her art. Ophelia’s Zimmer, like Fraulein Julie, also retunes a male-dominated play from the perspective of a female character.

Attempting Cleansed – only the second director to do so since its premiere – is a mark of Mitchell’s bravery. It is a difficult play, both technically – Mitchell describes the minutiae of staging a tongue being cut out, realistically – and tonally. “I was looking for plays about female experience with really strong ideas underpinning them.”

Has Europe changed her? “It’s made her bolder,” says Chloe Lamford, who has designed Ophelia’s Zimmer for Mitchell (she is KM5). “The audience there reads theatre as art, which isn’t necessarily always the case here, and that’s empowering.”

Mitchell is more modest. “What was really useful about being abroad is that they don’t have any relationship with me. I just erupted there, so they looked at what I was doing without any history.”

The experience has, however, shaped her as a director. “I really feel that I’m part of a much bigger community and that involvement means I have a much wider spectrum of choices as an artist. I understand my field in a deeper way, too, because I understand it not just in terms of one country, but in terms of the relationships between them, historical as much as artistic. The privilege of that is unbelievable.” Exile, schmexile.

CV: Katie Mitchell

Born: 1964, Reading
Training: University of Oxford; assistant director at Paines Plough; Royal Shakespeare Company
Landmark productions:The Oresteia, National Theatre, 1999, Three Sisters, National Theatre, 2003, Iphigenia at Aulis, National Theatre, 2006, Waves, National Theatre, 2006Wunschonkonzert, Schauspielhaus, Cologne, 2008, Ten Billion, Royal Court/Avignon Festival, 2012, Atmen (Lungs), Schaubuhne, 2013, Written on Skin, Royal Opera House, 2013, The Forbidden Zone, Salzburg Festival, 2014
Awards: Winston Churchill Travel Fellowship, 1989, Evening Standard best director, 1990, Nestroy Theatre Prize, Austria, best director, 2013, Theatertreffen 2008 and 2013, Stanislavski Award, 2014
Agent: Juliet Kreitman, The Agency

Cleansed by Sarah Kane runs at the National Theatre until May 5. Ophelia’s Zimmer, in association with Schaubuhne Berlin, runs at the Royal Court from May 17-21

Read The Stage’s review of Cleansed

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