On my radar: Katie Mitchell’s cultural highlights

The theatre director on Tacita Dean, Happy Valley, Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, Penelope Fitzgerald and a remarkable documentary

Katie Mitchell was born in 1964 and raised in Berkshire. She studied English at Oxford and started her career at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Following a stint at the Royal Court, she became an associate director at the National Theatre, where she attracted controversy for “smashing up” classics such as Chekhov’s The Seagull. In the past five years, she has worked mostly outside the UK, though she returned to the National in February to direct Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. She is directing Ophelias Zimmer at the Royal Court from 17 May and The Forbidden Zone at the Barbican from 26 May. Mitchell received an OBE in 2009 and her daughter, Edie, was born in 2005.

1 | Art

Event for a Stage

stephen dillance in event for a stage
Stephen Dillane in Tacita Dean’s Event for a Stage: ‘absolutely beautiful and very funny’. Photograph: Susannah Wimberley, Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery, London

Tacita Dean was commissioned to make a piece of work that looked at the relationship between theatre and visual art, so she made this fantastic film with the actor Stephen Dillane, who does a whole rainbow of different types of performing. They’re in a bit of a tussle – he challenges her views of what theatre is, what art is – and in their argument about the differences between their two fields they come up with this third thing, which is absolutely beautiful and very funny. It’s nearly an hour long but is more at home in an art gallery than a cinema – I saw it at Tate Modern. It made me reframe what I do in the theatre in a really exciting way.

2 | TV

Happy Valley

sarah lancashire happy valley
Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley: tackles important subjects rarely seen on TV. Photograph: Ben Blackall/BBC/PA

This is one heck of an exquisite cultural event. The whole series is carried by two middle-aged sisters, one of whom is a police detective, the other a recovering alcoholic. It has all the wonderful twists and turns of a great crime thriller series, but also unexpected and beautiful details about women’s lives. It’s just amazing to see a TV programme carried by middle-aged women who are preoccupied not so much with appearance but (particularly one of them) with being proper, decent and moral, the complexity of that, and the complexity of being a working mum and grandmum. These are really important subjects that you very rarely see on TV. The second series, which just ended, was breathtakingly good.

3 | Theatre

Escaped Alone

caryl churchill escaped alone
‘A gorgeous piece of work’: Linda Bassett, Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson in Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

This is the latest Caryl Churchill play, which has just ended at the Royal Court. Again, it’s really important from a feminist point of view – you can see my preoccupation, can’t you? It’s a very strong political play with an unexpected setting: a back garden somewhere in the south of England where four women are ostensibly having a nice chat but are actually terrified for various reasons, about existence and the future. It’s a gorgeous piece of work, up there with Churchill’s best in terms of formal experimentation and political content. The performances were remarkable. There aren’t many roles for women in their 60s and 70s in the theatre and it was wonderful to see these women [including Linda Bassett and Kika Markham] performing at the height of their talent and skill.

4 | Film

An Angel at My Table (1990)

an angel at my table still
Karen Fergusson as the young Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table: ‘a very, beautiful, moving story’. Photograph: Ronald Grant

This film involves two fantastic women: it’s Jane Campion’s adaptation of the autobiography of New Zealand author Janet Frame. In her early teens, Frame is misdiagnosed with schizophrenia and ends up in various mental institutions undergoing unbelievably awful treatment, including electroconvulsive therapy. They are just about to do a lobotomy when her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories, which she wrote in secret, is published to great acclaim. It’s a very beautiful, moving story and I’m ashamed that I’d never seen the film before. Now I’m reading all of Frame’s books – I’ve just finished her first novel, Owls Do Cry.

the bookshop by penelope fitzgerald

5 | Book

The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Here’s something else I should have done a long time ago. The composer George Benjamin, who I’ve been working with, told me I must read Penelope Fitzgerald, so I’ve just finished Offshore and The Bookshop. Fitzgerald is such an important writer, with an outsider eye. The Bookshop is a very quiet novel. It’s about a woman who tries to set up a bookshop in East Anglia and fails gloriously. I liked the slow, enormous ambition of this very discreet woman in a very conservative landscape – she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time but goes through with it anyway. It’s much weirder than it sounds – there are ghosts and things like that. I loved it.

6 | Documentary

Argerich (AKA Bloody Daughter) (2012)

martha argerich at the piano
Martha Argerich: ‘warmer and more lyrical than Glenn Gould’. Photograph: CAP/NFS/Capital Pictures

I’m looking forward to watching this film about the great Argentinian pianist Martha Argerich, directed by her daughter Stéphanie. It looks at a mother-daughter relationship where the mother is travelling all around the world playing concerts. It taps into a fear of mine, because I do worry about my daughter staying here while I travel around the world for work. Argerich is a majorly important interpreter of composers such as Bach and Chopin. She’s warmer and more lyrical than Glenn Gould, but has the razor precision necessary to play Bach (though of course she can play everything). The film looks absolutely beautiful.


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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