Features Q&A and Interviews Published 10 December 2013

Future Perfect

Andrew Haydon in conversation with Katie Mitchell: on contrasting cultural narratives.

Andrew Haydon

This is the second part of a two part conversation between Andrew Haydon and Katie Mitchell.

The first part saw them discussing German theatre culture, Mitchell’s production of Waves and Wunschkonzert, and the comparative absence of women in the National’s 50th anniversary celebrations.

Andrew Haydon: I wasn’t going to ask this, but it’s occurred to me that actually you do direct *a lot* of plays by men…

Katie Mitchell: Oh yes, very good. Let’s have a look…

AH: Exceptions being the couple by Lucy Kirkwood, the Hampstead one and the…

KM: Yes, you’re right to bring that up. However, I would absolutely do very strong feminist underpinnings to most of those pieces of work by men so Fräulein Julie would be the archetype of that.

AH: Yes, it’s the most extreme case /definitely

KM: /It’s the most extreme – and clear, therefore – example. So not only do I just do it through the lens of a minor, *female* character, but I run alongside that a contemporary, feminist, Danish poet.

[laughs]

AH: Yes! Which nobody else, I think, picked up on.

KM: No one picked that up. No. It’s a pity. It’s just that she’s not so well known. But, yes, you can call me out on that and I, no, in a joyful way I put my hand up.

AH: But for me it makes a really useful point about how *counting* isn’t necessarily the most useful way of assessing it. There should obviously be equality between men and women, in terms of numbers of playwrights produced. But at the same time, if you do a number on Martin Crimp’s latest play, like what you’ve done in Hamburg.

[In brief: the concept of the staging is that all the characters, including the powerful, warlike (male) generals are all being controlled like torture-victims by a black uniformed, all-female group. It completely shifts the apparent power balance in the script.]

KM: Hardcore feminist. [laughs]

AH: It was fascinating because you could see – absolutely – that it was the most out-and-out feminist production that I could ever point anyone to. It exemplified how you can represent women on stage and how you can talk about women’s issues. It’s also fascinating because it’s such a “masculine” play: the language of the play, the attitudes of the characters…

KM: I think that it was such a collaboration really…

AH: That’s interesting.

KM: And we were working definitely very differently together. The text was – 70 per cent was fixed, but the 30 per cent we were really still cutting and there were some re-writes going on, so there wasn’t a totally fixed play. The things that actually were the most fixed components were the chorus, because that’s just such beautiful writing. And that’s what the invention went into/

AH: /Yes. Those are certainly the most Martin-y bits/

KM: A couple of weeks ago we were still just deciding on “Is there a ‘– Sagt Kreon –’ or no ‘– Sagt Kreon –’ there?” and things like that we were still fine-tuning. So it was more organic, which is why the text wasn’t available in English before the performance.

AH: That’s fascinating, because I would have… looking at it – I say “I would have”; I actually *did* say to Simon yesterday – I would have sworn blind that it was a 100% signed-off play and then a completely 100% “imposed”…

KM: Concept.

AH: Yeah.

KM: No. We worked it out together. You see I didn’t… Bach Cantata 127 is *not me*. I’d like that said. It’s very important. That’s Martin, the playing of that. That’s the one they play on the tape, and that would be the normal thing, that everyone would say: [cynical voice] “Oh, yeah…” They’d talk about it being me, but that was a stage direction.

[laughs] 

No. We worked really, very closely. And in a way that’s why we did it. Wanting to work in a different way, away from Britain.

AH: It must be nice for Martin as well.

KM: Yeah. Karin Beier’s a very special producer, she provides a very special sort of environment, I think, for work.

Katie Mitchell's production of Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino

Katie Mitchell’s production of Alles weitere kennen sie aus dem kino

AH: Boring question: is [Alles weitere…] going to get transferred into the main Schauspielhaus space when they’ve got their Iron Curtain working again?

KM: No.

AH: No?

KM: No.

AH: Is it going to stay there?

KM: No. It’s just nine shows and then pfft.

AH: You’re kidding.

KM: That’s it.

AH: That’s a borderline obscenity!

KM: I know. Well, it’s partly my fault, really. I’m sure you heard that there were awful things that happened in Hamburg because the building work was delayed. So it *was* going into the Schauspielhaus; then it was clear that it wasn’t going to get in there; so we had a choice to cancel it, do it in Tonndorf – which is Studio Hamburg – or to do a downsized, without-a-set version in the studio in Hamburg. And I went for Tonndorf. The set was then installed there, which meant that is was sort of painted in there – constructed there – so it was no longer a bit of machinery that could operate in a rep. So that decision contained within it the fact it had to stop.

There was also the thinking in it that it’s quite a detailed show and maybe it was an advantage that it would be crystallised in Tonndorf: it was the right sized house, I think, for the show and for the acting. Once we’d made the decision to put it in Tonndorf… We were the only show that opened there. The other shows are previewing a bit and then they’ll basically go on to their full rep machinery, but we were to some extent a casualty of it. But I think it was great for the show. It’s a lovely venue and it’s Studio Hamburg and there’s something lovely about the history of that.

AH: And also the fact that we got taken off by a bus to the middle of nowhere like these characters that you’ve invented.

KM: …lots of advantages.

[Duncan Macmillan and Chloe Lamford return from lunch. Interview pauses]

AH: Sorry, what were we talking about before?

KM: We were talking about the Hamburg show and you were outraged that it was only on for nine performances.

AH: Will it get TheaterTreffen-ed? Would that be possible?

KM: Well, there were two judges there. And they’re going to bring the other judges. But that’s two judges out of seven. I mean, I can’t imagine it would be TheaterTreffen-ed… When I look at it, I, just, because we went through so much change and difficulty with making it… We even ended up having to changes costumes because a certain type of costume language is not clear in Germany, so we had to do our we had our naturalistic Greek costumes – really decayed as if they’ve been living on someone in their tomb… And of course, that was just… They just couldn’t understand why we would do that. So we had to make a lot of changes that were very unexpected in order to make the show clear for a German audience.

AH: Who tells you that?

KM: Karin. And Rita Thiele, the chief dramaturg.

AH: At what stage did they/have that input?

KM: /Late [laughs]

AH: through gritted teeth…?

KM: Well, no. That’s when they always have their input. It’s fair do-s, and with Karin she’s really, you know, she’ll say: you absolutely don’t have to take any of it, but this is what I would counsel. And because she’s such and old friend and I really trust her… And it’s the first time I’d ever done a play here so [I was/we were/they were] very nervous because the level of the… the quality of directing here, I mean, people like Nübling, Thalheimer, Alvis Hermanis; then the greats behind it:  Marthaler… I mean, the level of directing of classic plays is… I was terribly nervous to do a play. It wasn’t my suggestion to do a play, it was Karin’s.

AH: When you say “a play”…

KM: Well, I mean: not to do a video show, which is all I’ve really done here. So I’ve only really done multi-media work in Germany.

AH: But Miss Julie’s sort of a… play?

KM: It’s a camera show.

AH: Really?

KM: It’s cameras.

AH: That’s a very interesting…

KM: That’s from their point of view. It’s still a camera-show. This piece [indicated Atmen set], and the one in Hamburg, are the first without cameras. So I did feel a bit… a bit naked. And with such a high level of colleagues, even Karin…

AH: Did the er… No, that’s going to sound insulting…

KM: No, no; say it.

AH: Did that inform the, sort of, heightened level of concept that was…?

KM: No.

AH: Actually, no. Thinking about it, someone else said – they were doing your directing workshop at the NT around the point when you’d done Attempts on Her Life, or they were asking about that, and they… – apparently that was set in 1997, and everybody… So, in a reduced way it was the same concept: that some people from “the past” were doing… / …telling that story? /

KM: /Yeah. You could say that. / You could. Absolutely. You could look at the opera, Written on Skin, and see that there’s a strand of investigation of how to do plays now about “times past”. But, no, I don’t… The thing is that there’s a sort of, there’s a schizophrenia, isn’t there? For me. Which is, when I come here they the want the most extreme execution of a formal idea – really extreme. That means I push myself much further than I would do, formally. Whereas, in Blighty, if I were to do that I know, probably, what would happen/

AH: /And you could name the three reviewers who wouldn’t hate it./

KM: /…about the level of assault of these reviews. So it’s quite, sort of…

AH: Do you… I mean… Is that difficult to take?

KM: It’s quite a long time of it. And: I *really* don’t mind someone giving me feedback on what I make. I’m very open and I’m really happy to change things. But I think there’s a sort of… As the relationship builds over time, emotional freight gets carried into the analysis of the work and that freight is the hard thing. The analysis is still good. It’s really good to have a robust relationship between what you make and the people who are the caretakers of the public opinion of what is made /

AH: [harumphs sceptically]

KM: / it’s good that that should be robust. And fair dos. If you don’t do good enough work, yes, they should call you out on it. But the emotional language I find a bit unnecessarily intense.

AH: That’s diplomatic.

KM: And it’s very effective. In terms of the way a career runs.

AH: Yes?

KM: It’s very effective.

AH: Really? Does it actually get in the way of…

KM: Not for my work, no. But, you know, the narrative about someone, in a culture… It is possible to… Maybe the person themselves, you know… Maybe… Maybe the work was sometimes repetitive, sometimes not as good, but… I’ve become very interested in how these narratives run: only because I now have contradictory narratives; and *extremely* contradictory. So, here and in France it’s a really solid, positive narrative. And, even, here now – it’s so beautiful – they don’t even say “British”…

[laughs]

AH: Do they not?

KM: Some reviews they don’t say that.

AH: They just say “Director Katie Mitchell”?

KM: And that’s so moving. It’s so important for me. If you love Europe, you know, to be accept in Germany is like, it’s like the top. So there’s that going on. And, it can be rather the opposite, in some cases, in the UK. Except I have been there less now…

AH: Yes.  But you wouldn’t say that the press made that decision easier for you? It’s more about the positives of working in Germany than the negatives of working in Britain?

KM: It’s a mixture of it all. But maybe in a really joyful way. I think it’s probably a really good thing. To be here.

AH: It’s not very good for Britain.

KM: [self-deprecating “pfft”]

AH: Well, it’s interesting, isn’t it? I guess on one level if you’re doing work here then it improves Germany’s image of British makers. So that’s good for us. But it’s not very good for Britain, because the work’s here. And we don’t see it.

KM: It’s a pity not to see it.

AH: Although I suppose Berlin is closer to London than Glasgow, so…

KM: But no one comes. And that in itself is very interesting. I bumped into someone from the British Council in the summer and I was on my seventh show [laughs] or something and it was the first time I’d ever met her. That was really weird. it’s very weird.

AH: What shows have you made this year?

KM: I did the Gelbe Tapete here and then I did… I work a lot at the Staatsoper for Jurgen Flimm so I did Le Vin Herbé by Frank Martin which was a sort of oratorio. And then I was in France, wasn’t I? Yes. I did a new opera. And whenever I can I’m bringing a lot of wonderful colleagues from the UK out: Sam Holcroft, Lyndsey Turner; dramaturg and writer [not respectively] on a new Portuguese opera in Aix, and then [Atmen] is the next thing I’ve done [at the Schaubühne].

AH: What was that opera?

KM: That was a new opera – The House Taken Over. That was in Aix-en-Provence. Then we’re doing a really interesting one which we’re taking to Vienna. We’re doing a Peter Handke novel, the best one that he wrote, called the Sorrow Beyond Rooms, about the suicide of his mum, which was used as an exemplar for a generation. What happened to the generation who supported the Nazis; where they ended up. We go into rehearsals in December in London. We’re starting on Monday.

AH: You’re kidding?

[this interview took place on Tuesday 26th in the rehearsal room for Atmen at the Schaubühne. Atmen opened on Saturday 30th. Those next rehearsals started on Monday 2nd.]

KM: It is quite hectic at the moment.

AH: It is quite funny that you had one show opening in Hamburg on one Sunday [Alles Weitere… on the 24th November], and then Lungs opening *six days later*…

KM : And do you know what? There was another one hidden. We had Written on Skin on the Saturday before. The big Parisian première of Written on Skin.

AH: A different production, or?

KM: No, the same production from Aix- but it’s the climactic production if it’s a French-produced show. That was mad.

AH: Did you have to stand it up again.

KM: Yes. It had to be perfect. It had to have a perfect opening night… So, that was on the Saturday and then I came back in for Sunday lunch at home. By train all the way, I do my train travel. 14 hours.

AH: From…?

KM: London to Hamburg. No, it was Berlin actually. You should try it.

AH: No, no. I’m offsetting my carbon footprint by not having children at the moment. That’s what I’m doing.

KM: OK, that’s very good. At least you’ve got an opinion about the situation.

AH: Yeah, no, I… I saw 10 Billion and…

KM: We’re doing another one.

AH: You and Stephen [Emmott]?

KM: No, someone called Chris Rapley, a big climate science guy at UCL. It’s not *happening* [i.e. not “definitely happening”], but it’s in conversation with Vicky at the Court. You’re doing that,  aren’t you, Duncan?

[Duncan Macmillan, off: yeah!]

AH: [to Duncan] Are you doing everything now?

KM: Yeah, he is a bit. [To Duncan]: Is that all right?

DM: [happily] Yeah!

[conversation about whether the above is actually on-the-record. It is.]

KM: And there’s The Cherry Orchard [at the Young Vic] in London next year. I’m going to be 50! So I really wanted to do, in my 50th year… I’ve been carefully planning things… So I wanted to do the hardest play. It is the hardest play.

AH: The Cherry Orchard?

KM: Yeah. It think it’s the hardest play to do. And then: I’m doing some children’s operas now. So at the ENO, we’ve got a fantastic young, female composer Joanna Lee, that’s in development. Rory Mullarkey’s done the libretto. And then another one is in development at the Royal Opera House. So that strand of work has moved into opera…

AH: So the children’s show strand of your work has moved into opera?

KM: Yes. We’re really committed to that. We thought it would be really interesting to start that ball rolling. Because, now, at the National, everyone’s doing it. It’s great, isn’t it? Lots more children’s shows. People like Bijan, Marianne… So that’s all super. It’s a busy year next year. I’m doing a project on Bach Cantatas in Aix-. I’m actually being paid to do that!

AH: How long’s that? As a process?

KM: A three-week process for four shows.

AH: So you’re just… *Just*!… [KM laughs] You’re just sticking some visuals together for Bach?

KM: [happily] Yes! Yes. He’s my favourite composer, so of course that’s for me the biggest treat. He put them together every Sunday for years. There’s millions of them… And then, actually, the other project in Berlin here next year is Morten Feldman – do you know him? He’s this hardcore American, postmodern-but-not… [composer] In the ‘70s, Samuel Beckett directed Footfalls at the Schiller Theater here, in ‘72? ‘73? And when Beckett was there, this young American composer Morten Feldman came out and said, “Will you write a libretto for my opera?” And Beckett said “I don’t do libretto.” And then… he then sent on a postcard a little poem to Morten Feldman, so Morten Feldmen then wrote this opera. And then we’re doing, in the Schiller. The play… and then the curtain goes up and we’re doing the opera. Isn’t that great? Can you imagine?

[time runs out. AH thanks KM for being so generous with her time. Both agree a huge list of future plans seems like a good place to end.]

[ends]

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Andrew Haydon

Andrew Haydon was a freelance theatre critic (FT, Guardian, Time Out, etc.). He was also the editor of the CultureWars theatre section between 2000-2010, where he discovered exciting new theatre thinkers, including Andy Field, Matt Trueman and Miriam Gillinson. Then he went to Berlin for a while. Now he seems to be back for a bit. His blog here: http://postcardsgods.blogspot.co.uk/