How anxious was she about being late? What was the temperature of the changing room that Simon was in at the swimming pool? But no. Where were its seven gates? How far away was the invading army? Saying the actual lines was a final touch applied to an already elaborately constructed edifice. 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. 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. But directing them? For a start, they are too long. 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. It was ; she was But other than that Mitchell, who is 51, grew up in Hermitage, a village in Berkshire.
He later became a handpress printer, and experimented with the self-sufficiency movement. When I suggested this conveyed unusual drive, she bridled slightly. 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.
He sent back a handwritten letter, and she headed to Paris. I remember his blue eyes. I wanted to be his assistant — not a chance, of course. Bausch, who died in , 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. There was no male gaze in the work. And it was very violent, you know — and very poetic. In , as the Soviet empire collapsed, she travelled around Poland, Georgia and Lithuania, learning from the artists she sought out.
The first-year students had been to the zoo to look at animals, and they were doing a physical re-enactment of them. He was being annihilated. Is it conscious or not conscious? Is it cold or hot? He was watching everything. He was like a hawk. After a stint as an associate director at the Royal Court in the s, Nicholas Hytner, then the new artistic director of the National Theatre, invited her to join him. In she made the last of her 13 productions there.
In , Mitchell had a little girl, Edie. I had to try to double my earnings. It was a startling moment. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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 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. 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.
Slowly, slowly, there have been signs of change: more women running theatres. 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. At lunchtime, Mitchell, Ayling, Alford and Lamford went to a local bistro for lunch. The calm spell of the rehearsal room was lifted.
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