‘Smashing up the classics’. According to an English critic, that is the specialty of the most quirky of all British theatre and opera directors, Katie Mitchell (1964). Her work polarizes, it fuels controversy. She recently staged Cleansed by Sarah Kane at the National Theatre. Spectators walked out or fainted when they saw the hyperrealistic rape and torture scenes.
In Mitchell’s work, images take precedence over words. The Guardian calls her ‘the closest thing British theatre has to a genuine auteur: a director with a strong, uncompromising vision of how theatre should be.’ In her directing, she points out the places where there is friction in society: from war and abuse to current environmental problems.
Mitchell is exceptionally active in many large theatres and festivals in Europe, where she travels by train only, as a matter of ecological principle. She was the first British director to be selected for the prestigious German Theatertreffen. In 2015, she was ‘Brandstichter’at the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam. In her eco play Atmen, two actors generated electricity by cycling. In her post-apocalyptic staging of Beckett’s Happy Days, Winnie is not stuck in a mound of soil, but is up to her neck in rising water.
Film is an important influence. In 2011, she directed Orest by Manfred Trojahn at De Nederlandse Opera. Mitchell translates Trojahn’s filmic music by means of cinematic techniques such as fast forwards, slow motions and stills. German magazine Opernwelt picked the performance as world premiere of the year. During the past ten years, Mitchell developed and perfected a technique for live cinema productions where the film is both shot and projected before the eyes of the spectator.
What is striking about her adaptations is the shifting of the perspective: we follow the female gaze. In Mitchell’s adaptation of Miss Julie, the focal point is not Julie, but the maid Christine. With Five Truths, she made a video installation that shows five versions of Ophelia’s delirium scene from Hamlet. It is typical of the influence of feminism on her work. About this, she told De Volkskrant: ‘I consistently focus my attention on female experience and perception. There aren’t many female directors and somebody has to do it. I feel like it is my responsibility.’
It is therefore not surprising that she is directing Jean Genet’s The maids at Toneelgroep Amsterdam.