20 Questions With...Katie Mitchell
Date: 28 June 2004
Director Katie Mitchell - whose production of Iphigenia at Aulis has just opened at the National - explains her unique directorial style & why she likes depressing foreign films & admits she doesn't usually watch every performance of her plays.
After studying English at Oxford, Katie Mitchell's launched her career as an assistant director for new writing company, Paines Plough, followed by a stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company where, amongst others, she assisted Adrian Noble on The Master Builder and Deborah Warner on Titus Andronicus.
Mitchell then founded her own theatre company, Classics on a Shoestring, with productions of Arden of Favesham, Vassa Zheleznova, Women of Troy, The House of Bernada Alba and Live Like Pigs.
Back at the RSC, Mitchell’s many productions under her own direction have included A Woman Killed With Kindness, Ghosts, The Mysteries, Stars in the Morning Sky, The Dybbuk, Henry VI, Beckett Shorts and Uncle Vanya. Her 1996 RSC production of The Phoenician Women won the 1996 Evening Standard Award for Best Director.
Mitchell's other theatre productions include The Last Ones and Iphigenia at Aulis at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Endgame at the Donmar Warehouse, Attempts on His Life at the Piccolo Theatre in Milan, The Maids at the Young Vic, The Country, Mountain Languages/Ashes to Ashes and Nightsongs at the Royal Court and Easter in Stockholm.
Mitchell has also directed operas including Don Giovanni, Jenufa, Katya Kabanove and Jephtha with Welsh National Opera and Turn of the Screw for BBC Wales.
Since the late 1990s, Mitchell has worked most prominently at the National Theatre where she’s an associate. Her credits there include Rutherford and Son, The Machine Wreckers, Ted Hughes' version of The Oresteia, Ivanov and Three Sisters. Her new production of Euripides’ Greek tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis, has just opened at the NT Lyttelton, where it continues in repertory until 7 September 2004.
Date & place of birth
I was born in Reading on 23 September 1964.
Lives now in..
I've lived in Stockwell (south London) for a couple of years.
First big break
Directing Thomas Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1990. I'd been an assistant director and I'd worked on the fringe, but this was my first paid job in the mainstream. Adrian Noble, whom I'd assisted before, came with Trevor Nunn to watch a show that I did on the fringe, Arden in Faversham, with my own company Classics on a Shoestring, and I got offered the job as a result of him having seen that.
What other work did you do before the RSC gave you this break?
I did some work for Paines Plough for nearly a year, I worked as an assistant for the RSC for two years and then went abroad for about four months on a travel grant. I could never get anyone to give me a job as a proper director, so I set up Classics on a Shoestring in 1989. We did our first show in 1990 and kept going until 1996. The company combined working for no money on the fringe with working for money in the mainstream - I couldn't let go of the freedom of it!
I really enjoyed doing The Phoenician Women, a piece we did during the Bosnian War, at the RSC. And doing Strindberg's Easter at the Dramaten Theatre in Stockholm with some of those lovely Ingmar Bergman actors, in the original language - urdly-gurdly I called it affectionately!. And then I did Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life in Milan in Italian. I like the foreign productions because you're less scrutinised - by white male English critics!
That's very hard - I wouldn't want to miss anyone out. I've really relished working with all the actors and actresses I've encountered, and have always learnt something. My top favourites are probably more movie actors than theatre actors: Erland Josephensen, who's in a lot of the Bergman films; a Russian actor Oleg Yankovsky, who stars in Tarkovsky's film Nostalghia; Lev Dodin's wife Tatiana Shestakova, who starred in his productions of Stars in the Morning Sky and The Cherry Orchard. Over here, Mark Rylance and Stephen Dillane. I've worked with Stephen on Endgame and a little telly thing we're doing, but not with Mark. All of them are very discreet and very subtle, and you can't see how they're constructing what they're doing - it's very fully imagined. Watching or working with them, you feel that you're looking at a slice of your life. They're able to create very discreet - I'd say truthful but it's a very dangerous word - accurate behaviour, so that I can believe that that's a human being called X, Y or Z in that specific situation. There's no effort in what they do, it appears to be without effort, there's no technical fireworks. My attention is not drawn to the technical skill. It's like watching something that's really happening.
Which other directors do you most admire?
Simon McBurney, Deborah Warner, Declan Donnellan, Mike Alfreds; Nekrosius, a Lithuanian director. And Pina Bausch is my great heroine. Then there are a lot of film directors. I was brought up on depressing foreign films. My dad showed me foreign films directed by people like Bergman, Tarvoksy and Pasolini - we weren't allowed to watch anything on ITV. There's quite a cross-section there, but they all of them have a very precise way of looking at the world and human beings, and they find a form to encapsulate that precise way of looking at the world. There's no gap between how they look and the form they've found, and their ability to articulate so precisely and so exquisitely but so idiosyncratically, their way of looking. They're all different, all unique, and I just envy them.
You've worked on classic plays, new writing & opera. How do you approach directing these different styles & which do you prefer?
For me, it's the idea that's interesting. Sometimes that can be best expressed through opera, sometimes theatre, sometimes old plays, sometimes through new plays. The idea comes first. The bottom line is I can't quite believe that I'm still being employed to do all of these things - so I'm rather delighted with that. The fact that someone might offer an opera, a new play or a classic seems so exciting. I just relish all the mediums I work in - and I think they feed each other. It's been very useful to work on opera, in order to learn how to direct in bigger spaces. That has given me the confidence probably to do old plays in the Lyttelton. I never would have been confident enough to do that before if I hadn't done opera. They also help keep your enthusiasm going. Once you do an opera, then you come back to theatre and you're desperate for the spoken word. But then once you've done a lot of theatre, you'd just love there to be an aria. They provide this wonderful feast of contrasts in your working life.
Your productions are very distinct. How would you define your style? And how did it come about?
I try to be precise in terms of encouraging the actors to behave as they would behave in life, as opposed to behaving as they would behave on a stage. It's strictly Zola naturalism. The viewer is put in a very forensic relationship to what's going on, rather than a lyrical, sentimental or romantic relationship. You have to look at things as they are. That's the goal, at any rate. Mostly, I'm sure, I don't get there, but that's where I'm aiming.
The style comes from Stanislavski, and Polish and Russian theatre I experienced. I went to Russia in 1989 over into 1990, and then went back again to Poland. I'm still learning Stanislavski now, I still go for lessons. The man and his system are incredible. Those Russian practitioners that I met at drama schools and theatres are still the biggest influences on me, years later.
Do you re-visit your productions regularly when they're running? Is it true that you saw every single performance of Nightsongs at the Royal Court?
I don't go to every performance, though I did once as an exercise. We got a research grant from Leicester for the National Endowment for the Science, Technology and the Arts, with another director, James Macdonald, and one of the areas of exploration was watching a show every night. I did it on Nightsongs, watching it every single night and rehearsing it every day. I went slightly mad, but I learnt so much about what it is to perform a show every day. I learnt so much about acting, and how you have to turn up every night and re-imagine it. That's impossible to do. You run out of interest.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Everyone has - what can we call them? - spiritual needs. I can't think of a better way of putting it. And in discussions about taxation, environment and education, none of those fields can meet the needs that every individual in our community has, which we're going to call spiritual needs. Those needs have to be fulfilled. Perhaps the government needs to notice that there are more ambivalent, ambiguous needs that people have that can't be met by new taxation policies, but can be met by art in all of its forms, whether it be visual, theatre or music, and that those needs, though harder to define, must be met with as much concrete metaphor as you would deal with a group of people who are suffering from poverty, for example.
If you hadn't become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?
I would have worked with books, in a bookshop - or painting, and become a visual artist - or, best of all, a choreographer or on top of that, a dancer. Paint doesn't talk back!
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
I can't remember when I last went to the theatre! The problem is that, when I do go to the theatre, because I work on it, it has to be exceptional, so that you don't keep thinking: they should have moved stage right there, not stage left; ooh, they dropped an intention there; oooh, not tight. It's like being a pin-cushion watching a play, you're having pins stuck in you all the time. The last thing I’ve been able to not think about work at was Jerry Springer - The Opera. I liked the fact that there were very big people, particularly big women, on stage. At one point, I thought we should do Three Sisters with bigger ladies!
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Lenin. The way at that time ideas could change social structures … I would love to see how that happened. I know it all went wrong, and I'd love to understand how it all went wrong. Or Marx or Engels. Just to be one of those amazing thinkers - or even Einstein later - and to be inside the mind of one of those people who had an idea that changed entire societies. I think those who work in genetics and neuro-science will be, as we look back, the figures of this coming century who do the same thing. They may discover the seat of consciousness. That will be very challenging, ideologically.
I have so many books that are so delightful and have changed me, but my favourite is a toss-up between Proust's Remembrance of Things Past and Tolstoy's War and Peace. And it probably has to go to Proust in the end. You can't really read that book without reassessing how you look at the world, how you record it, how you perceive time, yourself, and others. It's extraordinary. But War and Peace is still up there because of how it looks at war. And Homer's Iliad is close up there with it. They're interchangeable.
Would you have been tempted to direct a stage version of Remembrance of Things Past, like the one that was done here at the National?
I worked with Harold Pinter on two plays of his at the Royal Court and was fascinated by his adaptation. He did such a beautiful adaptation of Proust, and Di Trevis did an exquisite rendition of it. But it's one of those books that just lives in your head. Someone else can do their version of it, but it can't help but be lumpen, however beautiful it was.
Favourite holiday destinations
I love Greece, but the true holiday destination, where I go more often for walking, is the Brecon Beacons.
Why have you chosen to do Iphigenia at Aulis now?
There's a lot of moral ambiguity surrounding our involvement in the Middle East at the moment, and I wanted to find a piece of text that could have a conversation with that. This is Euripides' last play, written at the height of his powers, where he was also looking at a morally ambiguous war situation. It seems to have a very good metaphor that will talk to our problems now, perhaps temporarily providing a new pair of glasses with which we can look at our involvement in that war, and help us to understand it. The brilliant thing about this play is it has three banging great themes: war, power and family. If you think about Iraq and the Kelly case - there's a story of family and power - and then there's the war.
Is yours a contemporary reading or a new translation?
I suppose it's contemporary because I'm reading it now and we're all making it now. I've tried to find an imaginary world for it that won't have too many masks and Jesus sandals. It's not trying to recreate how we think plays were done in ancient Greece in 406 BC. We're using anachronisms from the 20th century to communicate it. It's not a new translation. It was done by Don Taylor - I don't know when it was done, but he tragically died at the end of last year. I love Don's writing. His rendition of it is exquisite, and I didn't see the need to do a new one.
This isn't your first Greek play & you've done Iphigenia before at Dublin. What attracts you to them?
No one is judged in Greek plays. The Greeks let everyone argue their points, and then they asked the audience to make up their minds mostly. Now we're not encouraged to think dialectically. We're told what's right or wrong, black or white, good or bad. But the Greeks allowed the possibilities that we might be able to think for ourselves, and I think that's delightful in a play. They knew that the truth lies in between, it can't lie on either side. I directed this play three and a half years ago at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. I love the story. But I'm starting from scratch here - there's a completely different reason to do it now. The trick is to tamper less in order to achieve more.
Which of the three theatres at the National is your favourite?
I've not directed in the Olivier yet - that's a scary biscuit. But of the Cottesloe and Lyttelton, I prefer the Lyttelton. I like the scale, the formality of it. It's also much harder. As you get older, you want to set yourself higher jumps. I love the width of the Lyttelton, and the real challenge is to do all of that detailed studio work and make it legible and able to reach a bigger audience. It's a huge challenge for me, but I adore it.
What are your plans for the future?
I'm going back to Sweden to do a Beckett play with Erland Josephensen and a Strindberg play.
- Katie Mitchell was speaking to Mark Shenton
Iphigenia at Aulis opened at the NT Lyttelton Theatre on 22 June 2004 (previews from 12 June) and continues in repertory until 7 September 2004.