Katie Mitchell provokes strong reactions. Some think of her as a vandal, ripping apart classic texts and distorting them to her own dubious purpose. Others consider her to be the most important British director of theatre and opera at work today – indeed, among the greatest in the world. Her critics characterise her as high-minded and humourless, a kind of hatchet-faced governess intent on feeding her audiences with the improving and bleak. Others, though, talk about her gentleness, empathy and swiftness to burst into a joyous and slightly dirty laugh. One theatre professional told me that some agents only reluctantly put forward actors for Mitchell’s productions because of her fearsome reputation; and yet there are actors who have worked with her for 30 years.
But if Mitchell is indeed Britain’s greatest living theatre director, audiences in this country have not had many chances in recent years to see her most ambitious work. In 2015, she did not open a single production in the UK. Instead, Mitchell has been largely directing in Germany and France, crisscrossing the continent by train, always working on five or six projects at once: the Handel opera Alcina, a version of Stanisław Lem’s novel Solaris, a production of Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor, another of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, a theatre version of two novels by the Romanian Nobel laureate Herta Müller, a new opera based on Neil Gaiman’s story Coraline, an adaptation of a French novel (she was agonising over whether to choose Duras, Yourcenar or de Beauvoir) and a feminist rewriting of Hamlet seen from the point of view of Ophelia’s bedroom. (Somewhat outrageously for a British director, Mitchell has only ever directed one Shakespeare play and has no intention of ever doing so again.)
When occasionally she comes to a pause in London, Mitchell works in a featureless room up a narrow, low-ceilinged staircase in a row of old warehouses near Elephant and Castle. Her friend and fellow director, Richard Jones, once described her to me as “Edwardian” – and there is something starched and straight-spined in her bearing, an impression that is amplified by the precision and care with which she speaks, and her severity of dress. When I visited her at the studio on a balmy day in the spring of 2015, she was wearing plain black lace-ups, black culottes and a black T-shirt, and the only colour about her was her blue eyes. She projects a sense of zeal and focus that can make one’s own ways feel casual and slipshod. But there is no froideur about her, nor indeed any braggadocio.
Mitchell arouses criticism in Britain chiefly through the manner in which she takes complete artistic control of every aspect of the work, including the script – assuming the mantle of an auteur. Her speciality, the Telegraph’s critic once wrote, “is smashing up the classics”. Michael Billington, the Guardian’s critic, once accused her of “director’s theatre at its most indulgent”. (The phrase comes from the German Regietheater – and “director’s theatre” is considered an especially Germanic affliction.) He told me that while he admires Mitchell’s seriousness of purpose, her “delightful” manner and some of her work, he strongly resists her “placing herself above the text”. The problem with director-dominated productions, he argued, was that the experience of seeing them became all about “what Katie did next” rather than about the expression of the ideas of the writer. He added: “I believe that the director is there to realise the author’s intentions with the best performers available.”
When Mitchell talked about the reaction, in 2006, to her production for the National Theatre of The Seagull, the one that got her labelled a “vandal” – some felt that the text had been changed so much that it could no longer be thought of as Chekhov at all – she seemed a little wistful and self-searching. There was a feeling of having been misunderstood. “To make a text written however many hundred years ago live now in a way that to a director is satisfactory – sometimes cutting can be a way of doing that, or making certain dramaturgical choices. It’s not so culturally normal to do that in Britain, but it’s culturally normal in Holland or Germany,” she said. “A lot of very careful thought went into understanding the material Chekhov had written; there were hours of labour, very seriously intended. It is very difficult when there is a feeling that a travesty has been created when you have handled it so carefully. That wasn’t what one was aiming to do. But I wonder if that says more about those who said it than it does me?”
What enrages some British critics is precisely what many others admire about Mitchell: the fact that she stamps such a strong authorial mark on her work, that her style is as recognisable as Van Gogh’s or Picasso’s. “Katie dares to bring a text on stage in a very personal way. You could put me in a theatre and ask me, ‘Who has done this?’, and I would immediately say, ‘Katie Mitchell’,” said Ivo van Hove, the revered artistic director of the Dutch theatre company Toneelgroep Amsterdam. “There is a personality behind the work. It is not middle-of-the-road theatre, well done.” Benedict Cumberbatch, who acted in her production of Martin Crimp’s The City at the Royal Court in 2008, told me Mitchell was “a real European master craftswoman: an auteur who takes risks and continually creates beautiful work”.
“She is a zealot,” Richard Jones said. “She doesn’t do generically imagined productions – and there are a lot of generic directors about. The British in particular want sentiment, and so do a lot of actors. She just doesn’t do that. She doesn’t render pulsating masterpieces into Downton Abbey. She’s much more important than anyone else, and I don’t think people get that.”
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What, precisely, does a theatre director do? It is hard for audiences to know: after all, she departs the scene at just the point that the public are invited into the room. The director’s job, seen at its broadest, is to create an intellectual and imaginative framework for the action of the play. The text, the design, the lighting, the sound, the music – and the acting – all play their roles in creating this world. David Lan, the artistic director of the Young Vic theatre in London, once told me: “The art of directing is to make actors do exactly what you want – while making them think that they came up with it themselves.” But there are as many ways of being a director as there are directors. Mitchell has herself written a book about the job. In its foreword, Sir Nicholas Hytner, then the artistic director of the National Theatre, observed: “In the British theatre, most directors become directors by saying, ‘I am a director!’ and hoping that someone will believe them.”
There are many ways of being a director, but there is no doubting when one is in the presence of a work by Katie Mitchell. “When Dante was writing the Inferno, it was said that his pages were charred,” Lan said. “I don’t know whether Katie’s scripts are singed, but they should be.” Dark material is a hallmark of Mitchell’s productions, as if she wants to lead us to the ghastly depths of human behaviour and force us to understand it: the idea of her directing a comedy is as unthinkable as her directing a Broadway show.
Her actors convey a sense of minutely observed, psychologically accurate naturalism. In her shows, actors do not declaim: if they are anxious or frightened, they stumble anxiously or fearfully over their words, to the detriment, sometimes, of audibility. That fear or anxiety, too, is strongly embodied: physical language does much of the work. Mitchell’s actors never look out beyond the stage to address the audience directly, for that would be to suggest that the theatrical illusion is not complete. The lighting is also naturalistic, to the detriment, sometimes, of visibility. She takes pleasure in a certain kind of set: a slightly dilapidated 19th-century interior, often designed by Vicki Mortimer, with whom she has worked for three decades. She tends to choose plays that happen in one place, over a fixed period, and so scene changes are the exception rather than the rule. Watching, it is as if one is spying on real life as it unfolds in real time.
Over the past decade, Mitchell has also developed an entirely new way of working. In parallel with her naturalistic productions, she has collaborated with the film-maker Leo Warner to create works in which performers manipulate cameras and props so that images (often extreme close-ups) are projected on to a screen. Describing her multimedia production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie for the Schaubühne in Berlin, the critic Andrew Haydon – who has also written about Mitchell for academic publications – said that it was “like watching a Merchant Ivory film being made in front of your eyes”.
Such characteristics might help one spot a Mitchell production, but hardly convey what it is like to see one. Live theatre is the most fleeting of art forms. It is made and remade for its audience. Afterwards, it exists only in the memory. Eleven years ago, I saw Mitchell’s production of Iphigenia in Aulis, Euripides’ play set on the brink of the Trojan war. The set was a characteristic shabby-grandiose interior. Men with clipboards hurried about grimly, full of warlike self-importance. Into this world arrived, with a kind of magnificent inappropriateness, a flock of society women expecting a wedding. (Agamemnon, the Greek commander, had summoned his wife, Clytemnestra, and daughter, Iphigenia, on the pretext of a marriage for the girl; in reality he intended to sacrifice her to the gods to secure a fair wind.) Suitcase after suitcase arrived with this feminine retinue. There was a collision of frippery and horror that produced a sense of enormous anxiety.
From time to time, the chorus broke into fragments of dance that recalled the choreography of the German dance-theatre artist Pina Bausch, an important and lasting influence on Mitchell. As Iphigenia (quivering, terrified) was killed, a tremendous blast of wind rushed through the set, hurling the men’s officious paperwork into the air. There were more women than men on the stage – which is still rare in theatre – and the work had quite clearly been directed by a woman, focusing its attention on the confusion, fear and strength of the female characters. I remember feeling discombobulated, even irritated, by the production at the time. But to this day I find sharp shards of it lodged in my memory: it kept working on me.
To achieve the particular psychological exactitude she requires, Mitchell looks outside the British theatre tradition, using techniques that derive from the theories of the late 19th-century Russian director Konstantin Stanislavsky (which also later shaped the principles behind “method” acting). The playwright Simon Stephens recalled his surprise and bewilderment when Mitchell, directing the debut of his play Wastwater at the Royal Court in 2011, sent him 225 questions about the script before rehearsals had even begun.
Wastwater has three scenes, each centring on a dialogue between a different man and a woman, each played out in a different location on the margins of Heathrow airport. “Say the first scene was between Charlotte and Simon having coffee,” Stephens recalled. “The kind of questions would be, ‘How many cups of coffee has Simon already had this morning? How long was the walk that Charlotte took to get here? How late was she? How anxious was she about being late? What was the temperature of the changing room that Simon was in at the swimming pool?’ I was thinking, ‘This is all bollocks.’” He filled out the questionnaire with increasing impatience, sometimes with joke answers.
On the first day of rehearsal, Stephens expected to begin with a read-through of the play – an almost universal convention, and in the case of a new work, a nice boost to the writer’s ego. But no. “Katie and her assistant director had compiled a 50-page document based on my answers, detailing the buildup to these three scenes,” Stephens said. “So we sat and read these 50 pages – which of course included my joke answers – the equivalent of ‘Simon’s had 24 cups of coffee.’”
The actor Angus Wright, who was in that production, admitted that for some actors, Mitchell’s way of working “can seem quite arid and precise” – there is a lot of sitting down with a pencil and paper before an actor gets to try something out. But she wants the actor to step out into a world that is complete – “in which you know where you have just come from, the car you travelled in, how you walked into the room from the front door.” Cumberbatch said that working with her was like attending an “acting gym” – an “all-consuming process” that involved everything “from analysing the script and breaking it down, to defining character through research and improvisation”. It is not a process for everyone: “It’s a schooling in acting, so you have to want to go along with that”. But, he said, “I adored the experience.”
The German actor Julia Wieninger, another of Mitchell’s regular collaborators, recalled that the cast of Martin Crimp’s The Rest Will Be Familiar to You from Cinema, a free adaptation of Euripides’ Phoenician Women, were asked to conduct extensive research into bronze age Thebes. “How was it built? Where were its seven gates? How far away was the invading army?” Having gathered such information, she and fellow actors improvised together to build character biographies and shared backstories. Saying the actual lines was a final touch applied to an already elaborately constructed edifice.
The eventual production, however, bore no signs of Thebes’s seven gates or the bronze age. It was set in another rundown 19th-century interior; all the characters were dressed in modern, black clothes. The chorus of young women were absolutely in control of the protagonists (a reversal of the usual power dynamic in Greek drama). The women appeared to be forcing the terrified main characters to say their lines, to repeat and relive actions that had been played out before. Sometimes the chorus would “rewind” – perform a series of actions in reverse, sometimes almost a whole scene, which was both dazzling to watch and deeply strange. Seeing the work in Hamburg one drizzly December night, I was mesmerised and excited. The friend I was with was enraged, finding it obfuscatory and bewildering.
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Mitchell has a problem with Shakespeare: an “aversion”, she said. We had met on a chilly winter evening in London, after she had finished a day rehearsing Beckett’s Happy Days, a production destined for Hamburg. Had it not been for the regular explosion of Mitchell’s laughter – Stephens calls it her “Sid James laugh”, after the lascivious cackle of the Carry On actor – she would have seemed as unwaveringly serious as an abbess.
She loves reading Shakespeare’s plays – “they are fantastic poems with lovely moments of naturalistic live action”. But directing them? For a start, they are too long. Then there’s the difficult language, alien to modern ears. Then there’s the weight of each play’s performance history: the very British sense that there is a finite set of respectable ways for classic works to be directed. “The texts themselves and the history of their productions have got muddled,” she said. “So if you try to scrape the barnacles off, say, a Chekhov and give it a bit of a zing that it might have had when it was first radically produced, they get very, very, upset.”
It is perhaps odd, then, that Mitchell began her career at the Royal Shakespeare Company. She was 23; Adrian Noble had recently taken over as artistic director. She began by assisting directors such as Deborah Warner and later directed Ibsen, Strindberg, Euripides and Beckett.
The one Shakespeare she tackled was Henry VI Part 3. It was 1994; she was 29. The play was well-received, but afterwards, she recalled, John Barton, the great Shakespearean director, took her aside and said, “‘You know, it’s not bad work, but every single character is miscast, the narrative is not clear and every single line of verse is mauled. Oh, and you didn’t really do the battles. But other than that...’.” Looking back on her RSC years, she became melancholy. “Maybe I just started off in the wrong field,” she said. “Maybe entering the world of mainstream British theatre at all was a wrong turning.”
She told me this one afternoon in June, in Aix-en-Provence, where she was directing Handel’s Alcina. It was the end of the day’s rehearsals and she had returned to her rented flat, in the hills above the town. After swimming lengths in her landlord’s pool, she put on a blue sundress – the only time I saw her out of “uniform”.
Mitchell, who is 51, grew up in Hermitage, a village in Berkshire. Her mother was a cook and her father a dentist with artistic yearnings – “someone who was always searching for something”. (He later became a handpress printer, and experimented with the self-sufficiency movement.) The family watched Bergman and Antonioni films on BBC2. She started directing at boarding school at 16: among her first productions was Harold Pinter’s 1981 radio play, Family Voices. At 17, she founded her own company and took Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play After Magritte to Edinburgh. When I suggested this conveyed unusual drive, she bridled slightly. “I just liked doing it. I liked the organisation of it.”
After graduating from Oxford, she wrote to Peter Brook, the director of Bouffes du Nord in Paris, and the presiding deity of British theatrical avant-gardeists. (His radical 1970 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in a white box and eschewing period dress, remains a key moment in theatre history.) “He was the god. He was the big British director out there in Europe,” she said. He sent back a handwritten letter, and she headed to Paris. “I remember the nerves of it. I remember his blue eyes. I wanted to be his assistant – not a chance, of course.” (Things have come full circle: she will make her debut at the Bouffes in 2018.)
That evening, she went to the Châtelet theatre to see one of Pina Bausch’s most famous dance-theatre works, Nelken (Carnations). Bausch, who died in 2009, was one of the most influential theatre-makers of the 20th century. With her company Tanztheater Wuppertal, she conjured a dark, magical, intense world, rooted in the language of dance but with its own singular idiom. Nelken took place on a stage strewn with thousands of pink flowers, and patrolled by Alsatian dogs.
“I just sat and cried: first because it was so beautiful, and second because it was made by a woman, and I hadn’t seen much work made by a woman,” Mitchell recalled. “The metaphors, the selection of images, the interaction between men and women, the fragments of narrative: the gender politics were very certain, very strong, very definite. There was no male gaze in the work. And it was very violent, you know – and very poetic.” Years later, invited to dine with Bausch, Mitchell surreptitiously fished one of her lipstick-stained cigarette ends out of the ashtray – she still has it.
While at the RSC, Mitchell did all she could to learn from eastern Europe. In 1989, as the Soviet empire collapsed, she travelled around Poland, Georgia and Lithuania, learning from the artists she sought out. In St Petersburg, she observed Lev Dodin, the head of the Maly theatre, as he trained directors. “What he put them through! The first-year students had been to the zoo to look at animals, and they were doing a physical re-enactment of them. This guy was standing on one leg being the flamingo he’d seen. He was being annihilated. Dodin would say: ‘Is your bird hungry? Is it conscious or not conscious? Is it cold or hot?’ It was so rigorous, so thorough. He was watching everything. He was like a hawk.”
After a stint as an associate director at the Royal Court in the 1990s, Nicholas Hytner, then the new artistic director of the National Theatre, invited her to join him. During her first years as an associate director, she found him extremely supportive, she said – especially in stiffening her resolve to make her first foray into multimedia in 2006 with Waves, a version of Woolf’s novel.
But over time, their relationship become “dysfunctional”, she said. In 2011 she made the last of her 13 productions there. “It took several years for it to become clear,” she said of the period before her resignation, “but in retrospect I think there was a dislike [from Hytner] of the work I was making and a desire to rechannel my creative energies into safer territory for his repertoire, like children’s shows, until suddenly it seemed that was all that I was doing.”
In 2005, Mitchell had a little girl, Edie. “My career wasn’t in very good shape during the early period of Edie’s childhood, and it was very hard.” (Mitchell and Edie’s father did not remain together.) “The childcare comes in at over £30,000 a year, and my earnings would never be at £30,000 a year. I had to try to double my earnings. One of the hardest things Nick Hytner said to me was, ‘You’re only making work for money.’ I looked at him and thought: just even begin to understand what territory you’re heading into to with a woman in this situation. It was a startling moment.”
Hytner told me that the early productions she made at the theatre – including Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Waves and Iphigenia at Aulis – were “among the best and most beautiful I’ve ever seen”. But, he said, “I regret very much that with some of Katie’s work, we disagreed about certain basic principles – audibility and visibility of the action, for instance – and our professional relationship suffered.”
It was as things were becoming difficult at the National, however, that an unexpected invitation came from Europe – from the then artistic director of the Schauspiel theatre in Cologne, Karin Beier. At first, Mitchell demurred. “I said, ‘Karin, it’s too difficult: I can’t read anything, I don’t know anything about the language or the country, how on earth can I direct actors?” And she said, ‘Oh come on, Katie, it’s a favour, we’re old friends.’”
The play was Wunschkonzert (Request Programme), a 1970s one-woman play by Franz Xaver Kroetz about the last five hours in a woman’s life: the character listens to a request show on the radio, and, at length, commits suicide. Mitchell directed with the help of a literal translation. In the show, black-clad men surrounded the solitary single female figure, filming her total despair. The radio music was produced by a string quartet, placed in a glass box. Mitchell felt liberated: she was being asked to go further than she dared, not rein herself in. Wunschkonzert won the ultimate theatrical accolade in the German-speaking world: a slot at the Theatertreffen, the Berlin drama festival, where the best productions of the year are celebrated. More invitations flooded in. It is in Germany, now, that she feels she can make – is pushed to make – her most radical, her most feminist, work.
What makes Germany different from Britain in its relationship to the theatre, she said, was history, particularly the history of the 20th century. “You have to go back to Auschwitz,” she said. “It is not a matter of aesthetics.” In other words, an impulse to question and deconstruct on the German stage has arisen from the great jagged scar of the second world war. Any sense of theatrical heroism, or of authority, including the authority of a text, is ideologically questionable. It is a cultural difference between two closely intertwined nations that goes deep. As Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum, remarked in a recent BBC documentary on Germany: “The British tend to use their history to comfort themselves … the Germans use it as a challenge to behave better in the future.”
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In June, I spent two days watching Mitchell work on Alcina, which she was preparing for the annual opera festival at the Grand Théâtre of Aix-en-Provence. (She was commuting to France, as always, by train: she eschews flying for environmental reasons, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of European rail connections.) The story – involving disguises, potions, magic rings, enchantments, knights and witches – is based on the romantic epic Orlando Furioso, by the 16th-century Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto. The bones of it are that Alcina and her sister Morgana are enchantresses who preside over a magical island, where they transform passing male visitors into rocks, animals, plants or waves.
In the studio, the performers were working in a rough approximation of Chloe Lamford’s two-storey set, yet another lived-in 19th-century interior. Mitchell sat erect, facing the performers as they repeated fragments of the action. She was flanked by the assistant director, Dan Ayling, and choreographer Joseph Alford; beyond them radiated, in a long row, the stage manager, designer, lighting designer, costume designer, music staff and their various assistants – plus a piano and harpsichord standing in for the orchestra. In the dimness, a dozen laptop screens glowed.
Watching Mitchell and her team at work I felt as if I had been transported to a factory floor in which something was being made with immense precision, but through often opaque and arcane processes. There was a curious contrast between the ordinariness of much of the work (solving small logical problems, requiring many repetitions of fragments of action) and the otherworldly power of the principals – soprano Patricia Petibon and countertenor Philippe Jaroussky – in full voice. Mitchell hardly ever got up from her seat; nor did she ever raise her voice. When she issued an instruction she would tell Ayling, who, like an NCO would repeat the instruction at greater volume, and spring up, clutching his vocal score, which bristled with sticky notes.
Mitchell did not herself follow a score, as if the printed page would impede her scrutiny of the performers. She would often hoot with laughter – “Oh my days!” – or speak terrible franglais – “Now, put on les gants!” (The cast was a mix of French, German, Polish, British and Serbian nationals.) She was always scrupulously gentle and polite: one of her instructions to the actors playing Alcina’s staff began, “Now, lovely servants...” She never said that anything was “good” or “bad”, but rather, “clear” or “unclear”. Anna Prokohova, who sang Morgana, said: “She beats the operatic pathos out of you. She wants you walk through a door like you would really walk through a door; pick up a pencil like you would pick up a pencil.” Naturalism and opera are uneasy bedfellows. Mitchell was aware that requesting “that someone put on makeup while they are singing a difficult coloratura sequence is a really big ask”.
The production was unswervingly feminist. Alcina and Morgana ruled a realm designed to further their sexual pleasure. Their desire was portrayed without judgment. Male visitors to the island were put through a magical device (a contrivance resembling the baggage-security machine at Eurostar terminals) that turned them into stuffed animals. “People tend to duck the magic factor of the opera and play it out as a romantic comedy,” Mitchell said, “or play the romantic side of things and not look at the feminist side of things, which is that two women run something that is very efficient, that pleasures them.” As Le Monde’s critic gleefully pointed out, there was “un cunnilingus dès la deuxième scène” – cunnilingus right from the second scene.
Over the past 30 years, Mitchell told me, she has attended innumerable meetings to discuss why there are “a lot of women at the beginning of their careers [in theatre] and none, really, or only a very few, at the top”. Slowly, slowly, there have been signs of change: more women running theatres. “But there is something much more subtle,” she said, “and that is what we see on our stages: how women are represented, how relationships between men and women are represented. In opera, you feel that sometimes people can go and watch representations of women that are frankly antediluvian and that is seen as acceptable because it is tucked into this thing called opera. But for me it isn’t acceptable.” The same goes for theatre. Her production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, for the Berlin Schaubühne, was seen entirely through the eyes of its apparently least important character, the put-upon servant Kristin. “She wrestled a misogynist text to the floor and put bullets in the back of its head,” said Haydon.
At lunchtime, Mitchell, Ayling, Alford and Lamford went to a local bistro for lunch. The calm spell of the rehearsal room was lifted. Mitchell put on sunglasses and greedily soaked up the sun. It turned out that there were numerous tensions – most of which had been invisible to me – that required careful handling. One singer had complained that his costume was too hot (“I will die if I wear a jacket to the end of act three”, he had announced) – meaning a possible redesign, with budgetary consequences. Another was refusing to sing if the air conditioning was switched on. Another, who had a virtuosic aria to sing during a complicatedly choreographed sex scene, had been despondent, almost tearful, after a run-through. All these troubling matters were addressed away from the rehearsal room – the job of which was to provide an atmosphere that was “light and efficient and precise”, Mitchell said. “As a director you have a role that is very simple: to say whether it’s clear or not. That is the job: to watch in detail and make sure it is precise for the audience, second by second.”
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A great deal of Mitchell’s worldview is set out in her book, The Director’s Craft: A Handbook for the Theatre, which describes, step by step, her way of working. It can seem at times almost amusingly plodding (“ask your stage management to buy tea, coffee and biscuits for the first days of rehearsals”). It is characteristically clear and patient in its tone, even if some readers regard its lengthy instructions for the making of a production as impossibly demanding. She frequently teaches, and a generation of young theatre directors – including Lyndsey Turner, Lucy Kerbel and Carrie Cracknell – have assisted her and learned at her side.
According to Turner (who recently directed Cumberbatch as Hamlet at the Barbican in London) Mitchell’s methodology is deeply liberating because it demystifies directing by showing “that there are steps you can take to narrow the gap between the play as it exists in your imagination and the work you’ll eventually see on stage”. This aspect of Mitchell’s project is quietly political: directing is shown to involve a set of skills that can be acquired and polished – rather than, as Turner put it, “having been to a certain kind of university, the ability to talk about plays in a certain way, or the possession of bucketloads of charisma.”
Turner said that it is a habit of hers to go round to Mitchell’s place in south London after her shows “for a bottle of wine and a debrief, when she will slowly tease out every choice made, every punch pulled, every challenge ducked… she understands your blind spots, your weaknesses, your affinities. She reveals patterns in your work, and gives you the courage to break bad habits.”
At the close of 2015, Mitchell was gearing up for another big artistic move: film. She and writer Duncan Macmillan are making a short – a thriller with a central female role, for Warp Films and Film4. They are hungry to work on a full-length feature. It is a logical consequence of Mitchell’s multimedia work: she will be able to make a perfected object that can exist in the way she intended, for ever, without the mess of live performance. In 2014 she was obliged, because of a cold, to watch previews of her production of The Cherry Orchard at the Young Vic on a monitor outside the auditorium: Simon Stephens cheekily told me he thought this was her “happy place”. He also observed that the only pop reference he had ever heard her invoke was Joy Division – whose lead singer, Ian Curtis, performed as if the audience did not exist.
If 2015 was a barren year for Mitchell in Britain, 2016 will be different. She will return to the National Theatre, under its new artistic director Rufus Norris, to direct Cleansed, by Sarah Kane. Her production of The Forbidden Zone – a multimedia work about war, which she created with Duncan Macmillan and the filmmaker Leo Warner for the Salzburg festival – will travel to the Barbican. A new “functioning, fruitful” relationship with the Royal Court under its artistic director Vicky Featherstone will be cemented with the British premiere of Ophelias Zimmer, her feminist version of Hamlet (with writer Alice Birch and designer Chloe Lamford). Her production of Lucia di Lammermoor will reach the stage of the Royal Opera; in October, she will become a visiting professor of opera at Oxford.
If Mitchell is, as Haydon calls her, “the king in exile”, then the king is coming home. But then, some trace of her has always been here. Mitchell once told me about sitting on the tube with Sam Mendes – her exact contemporary and almost polar opposite in both career and approach. “I said, ‘Just imagine, Sam, imagine what it is like as a woman reading Hamlet – when you consider where the women are placed in the play, what happens to them, what women readers might feel about that, about their absence.’ Then I said, ‘I look across at you and imagine what it might be like to be a man reading Hamlet, with so many male characters and male experiences being expressed, scene after scene after scene.’ He smiled wryly at me. He was always very patient with me.” Among their generation of directors, it is Mendes who has become the global superstar. But Mitchell has arguably achieved something more difficult. “She is,” Turner said, “reshaping the culture.”