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lunes, 4 de enero de 2010

Katie Mitchell: 'I'd hate to hang around making theatre when they're tired of it'

Theatre director Katie Mitchell's work has horrified many critics – but others love her plays.

She tells Alice Jones how she thinks her latest venture, 'The City', will be received

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Controversial: Katie Mitchell is a director who polarises audiences like no other © Geraint Lewis

Katie Mitchell is sitting in a draughty church hall in south London rhapsodising about a surprisingly glamorous formative influence. "I used to love watching Come Dancing," she says, starry-eyed, her half-eaten sandwich poised in mid-air. "All those women in amazing frocks with fluffy yellow frills. At its heart, it's such a beautiful metaphor for men and women together." By the time these frills and footwork have undergone the Mitchell treatment, of course, they are largely unrecognisable: think of her coquettish foxtrotting chorus in Iphigenia at Aulis, her mismatched, passionless couples doing the tango in The Seagull and, most recently, her bereft women of Troy dancing a frenetic, desperate quickstep with only the ghost of their partner to guide them.
Depending on where you stand in the Mitchell debate – and she is a director who polarises audiences like no other – her relentlessly innovative approach to theatre either dusts off the classics, bringing them back to the stage with a spring in their step or it trips them up with clumsy rewrites and clashing anachronisms. "It's very curious that people so hate one thing, so like another," she shrugs. "But you can't tell people how to receive your work, can you? That would be consummate arrogance."

Her latest project is directing Martin Crimp's new play The City at the Royal Court. Crimp and Mitchell are an established double act, having collaborated on both his plays (most recently, Attempts on Her Life) and his versions (The Seagull) over the last decade. They make an intense if odd couple – she a diminutive bundle of precisely focused energy, her short, grey-flecked hair scraped back from piercing eyes and cheekbones, he a rake-thin, wraith-like figure, hiding behind a smooth curtain of white hair. They work together "hand in glove", says Mitchell, who even has to have a whispered consultation with the playwright before she allows herself to answer my first, basic, question. "What's it about? Failure of imagination. Sex. And employment." Right.

Crimp is famously protective of his work, refusing to release scripts until opening night and indeed, when I arrive at the rehearsal rooms five minutes early, I am quickly asked to leave and wait outside lest I overhear a precious fragment. So it may or may not be a companion piece to The Country, Crimp's sinister, cryptic three-hander about a married couple who move to the country to escape their demons, which Mitchell directed at the same theatre in 2000.
For The City her long-time designer Vicki Mortimer is on board again as is Hattie Morahan, who played Nina in The Seagull and Iphigenia. The 43-year old director prefers to work with a tried-and-trusted family. "You waste a lot of rehearsal time learning someone and sharing with them how you want to work," says Mitchell. "I'm quite a shy person and I find that stage of getting to know a collaborator quite agonising, like being at some awful cocktail party."

Benedict Cumberbatch and Amanda Hale (a wonderfully nervy Laura in The Glass Menagerie) are both new to the rigorous Mitchell method. Kate Duchene, Hecuba in Women of Troy and a frequent face in the director's casts, recently agonised in an interview that if she became "a Katie Mitchell actor", all other directors would be "scared" of her. It's true that Mitchell is the closest thing the British theatre has to an auteur. "I find it quite hard that I give the impression of such a strong personal signature," she demurs. "That's not my intent."
Though it wasn't much talked about during her Berkshire upbringing – "I don't know why, perhaps it was a class thing" – theatre is in Mitchell's blood. Her great-grandparents met in the music hall. She was a Tiller girl and he worked with Charlie Chaplin and Fred Karno. "He went on the South African tour but then he was forced by my great gran not to go on the American one so he missed all the success and became a bookie instead."

Mitchell directed her first play, aged 16, at Oakham School. In a typically audacious move, she reconceived Harold Pinter's little-known radio play Family Voices for the stage, as well as playing the piano and acting in it. She went on to study English at Magdalen College, Oxford, and threw herself into the university's drama scene as well as gorging on the work of the avant-garde – from Hesitate and Demonstrate to Pina Bausch. Her first job was stage managing and working in the kitchen at the King's Head Theatre Pub in Islington, London, before she became an assistant director at the experimental Paines Plough and the RSC and travelled around eastern Europe, learning from the great theatre practitioners Lev Dodin and Tadeusz Kantor. In the early 1990s, she set up her own company Classics on a Shoestring and was eventually made associate director at the Royal Court and the National.

With such an eclectic background, it's no surprise that her career has always leapt between extremes – from the classics to brand new; from straight ensemble acting on a bare stage lit by candlelight to hi-tech multimedia extravaganzas such as Waves and Attempts on Her Life in which live action is filmed in close-up by the actors and projected on to video screens. Although the latter direction has caused its fair share of huffiness amongst theatre purists, it is Mitchell's bashing around of the classics that has made her name.
"Bash them around is a bit cheeky, isn't it?" she says. "I cut them, let's say, with careful consideration without dismantling the idea structure that is at the heart of the play. People think I might be wilful in some way with the material but no – my aim above all is clarity. They think it's 'oh, let's just throw it all together in this irresponsible, anachronistic fashion and see what happens.'"

She's still smarting from the reaction to The Seagull in 2006 – critics groaned at its inconsistencies and one particularly disgruntled punter posted her a programme with "RUBBISH!" scrawled across it. "It was surprising. In retrospect I can see where I made the errors. But I bet you, even if I had corrected all the things which weren't clear, I'd still have got the same reception for it," she sighs. "I felt that Chekhov had almost been adopted into the family of British theatre. He'd become almost equal to Shakespeare. But it did obviously really offend and I genuinely didn't intend to."

The vociferous reaction rumbled on into last year when Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National, singled out – wrongly – Mitchell's work as the victim of "misogynistic reviews" in his diatribe against "dead white male" theatre critics. "I felt incredibly supported by him but also a little exposed. If anyone were to take the comment amiss, I'd be a natural target for their upset." But where she shrugs off the importance of her gender, she is more forthcoming about the changes that her two-year-old daughter, Edie, has wrought on her work. "It's like someone has removed a layer of skin so you're so much more vulnerable."
Has motherhood made her a better director? "I suppose I'm privileged to understand a lot more about human experience. I've watched someone die once – my dear granny – and I've never recovered from that. And I can't recover from having a baby. How you understand the world changes. And I punish myself so much now about how I didn't understand actors who had families and who didn't want to rehearse 24/7."

There's no let-up for Mitchell though. Next is ...some trace of her at the National, a multimedia piece inspired by Dostoevsky's The Idiot starring Ben Whishaw. She has just "boiled it down to 60 pages", a move not likely to endear her to those still smarting from her chopped-about Chekhov. But she is nothing if not ambitious and would love to direct a film, do a musical – "but no one would let me" – and create a children's show for Edie. "But I'd hate to be one of those people who still hangs around making theatre when they're tired of it," she says. "I'd rather go and work in a bookshop."

'The City', 24 April to 7 June, Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020-7565 5000)

Katie Mitchell: interview
By Jane Edwardes. Photo © Stephen Cummiskey
Posted: Mon Nov 12 2007

Time Out meets controversial director Katie Mitchell, whose futuristic interpretation of Euripides' anti-war tragedy, 'Women of Troy', opens next week

Going into battle: director Katie Mitchell

Many people have an extreme reaction to the work of the director Katie Mitchell. In blogland at least, she's the Marmite director par excellence, some praising her to the skies as the great hope of British Theatre, and others damning her as the worst example of director's theatre, arrogantly scrawling her own signature across the stage at the expense of the playwright's.
It's probably not that her work is so radical compared to some smaller companies, but rather that she works at the National Theatre where audiences for, say, a production of 'The Seagull' tend to anticipate a familiar friend rather than a radical reassessment.
Actually, although I'm normally in the positive camp, 'The Seagull', which appeared confusingly and irrationally to be set after WWI, was one of my least favourite Mitchell productions. There've been times, too, when I've been frustrated by the lack of light on the actors' faces and an inability to hear what they say. But ever since she first made her mark with Classics on a Shoestring in the late '80s, her productions have been distinguished by the intensity of the emotions, the realism of the acting, and the creation of a very distinctive world (influenced by her admiration for Pina Bausch). It wasn't until she arrived at the National Theatre that she started combining that realism with a use of film invariably created by the actors on stage. She's one of the few directors who understands how to use video in the theatre.

Critics have, on the whole, been more generous than the bloggers. When her boss, Nicholas Hytner, jumped to the defence of Mitchell and Emma Rice in the now infamous Dead White Males episode in which Hytner accused certain long-serving male critics of sexism, most of those implicated trawled through their cuttings to confirm that Mitchell at least had received more good reviews than bad ones. She was working at Glyndebourne at the time, and says that Hytner's defence made her feel 'fantastically supported and exposed in equal measure'. The National is very much her home and where she is currently working on her eleventh production, Euripides' 'Women of Troy'. In particular, she has repeatedly returned to the Greeks both inside the National and out.

'Women of Troy' is a devastating anti-war play depicting a world in which there are no moral certainties, so no comfort for those critics who feel that Hytner should sit Mitchell down with a hefty anthology of comedies and demand that she pick one. But to meet, like so many artists who immerse themselves in death and destruction, she couldn't be warmer, occasionally letting out a vast cackling laugh. I put it to her that her productions are set in what a friend once described as 'Katie Mitchell land'. Asked to explain, I only get as far as the use of rain and ballroom dancing, before she throws up her hands in defeat, crying: 'Yes. Do you think I should start again? I tried in "Waves" to see where else you could go.'
She's less apologetic when I use the word auteur. 'What does that mean exactly? It means interpretation. Casting an actor is an act of interpretation. There's a signature in every director's work. Possibly because I'm more visual than other directors, the signature is stronger on the eye. But it's the ideas that create the visual look and as I am quite regularly doing plays that are involved with the themes of death, or war, or violence, it results in a certain visual landscape. My aim is to communicate each play as clearly as I possibly can in the time in which I'm working.'

There are no prizes for guessing why she is directing Euripides' tragedy. This is her second attempt on the play; the first was in 1991 during the first Gulf War. It's also no surprise that the production is not set either at the time of the Trojan War or in the playwright's lifetime but rather in the future. 'There's something about dressing actors in tunics and Jesus sandals, or about an attempt to do a reconstruction with masks,' she says, 'which I think distances the viewer from the reality contained in the material. You go "Thank heavens we don't behave like that now." ' But, she says, you don't need to ram the comparisons home. 'We all have to cope with the radio every morning. I think that's why I wanted to do the play. I turn on the radio and there I am in my kitchen with my little girl and they say there's been a terrorist attack and I go all alert and think of her. And then they say "In Iraq" and I literally switch it off in my head. So I thought one should have a look at it and what it would be like to be there.'
'Women of Troy' previews from Nov 21 at the National Theatre, Lyttelton
Katrina Jane Mitchell OBE (born 1964) is an English theatre director. She is an Associate of the Royal National Theatre.
Life and career
Mitchell was raised in Hermitage, Berkshire and educated at Oakham School. Upon leaving Oakham she went up to Magdalen College, Oxford to read English. She studied under Lev Dodin and Tadeusz Kantor and is particularly inspired by Eastern European theatre and by choreographers such as Pina Bausch and Siobhan Davies.
She began her career behind the scenes at the King's Head Theatre in London before taking on work as an assistant director at theatre companies including Paines Plough and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Early in her career she directed a number of early productions under the umbrella of her company Classics On A Shoestring.
In 1997 Mitchell became responsible for programming at the Other Place - the RSC's now defunct black box space. While at the RSC her productions included The Phoenician Women which won her the Evening Standard Award for Best Director in 1996.
Mitchell staged a new production of Luigi Nono's Al gran sole carico d'amore for the Salzburg Festival 2009 and a new production of Parthenogenesis at the Royal Opera House in June 09.Her frequent collaborators include writer Martin Crimp and designer Vicki Mortimer.
She has been described as "a director who polarises audiences like no other" and "the closest thing the British theatre has to an auteur". In 2007, the artistic director the NT accused the British press of affording Mitchell's productions "misogynistic reviews, where everything they say is predicated on her sex.
Her productions have been described as "distinguished by the intensity of the emotions, the realism of the acting, and the creation of a very distinctive world" and accused of "a willful disregard classic texts", but Mitchell suggests that "there's a signature in every director's work"and that it is not her intent to work to a "strong personal signature".
Mitchell's process involves long and intensive rehearsal periods and use of the Stanislavsky method. She regularly involves psychiatry in looking at characters, and in 2004 directed a series of workshops on Stanislavsky and neuroscience at the NT studio. Since her 2006 play Waves, she has also experimented with video projections in a number of productions.
A former associate director at the Royal Court Theatre, Mitchell was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2009 New Year Honours. She has a daughter Edie, born c. 2006.

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