Katie Mitchell is a British theatre director whose unique style and uncompromising methods have divided both critics and audiences. Though sometimes causing controversy, her productions have been innovative and groundbreaking, and have established her as one of the UK’s leading names in contemporary performance.
She was born in Berkshire in 1964, grew up in the small village of Hermitage and read English at Magdalen College, Oxford. She began her theatre career in 1986 with a job at the King’s Head Theatre as a production assistant. She became an assistant director at Paines Plough a year later, and then took the same post at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1988. In 1990, she founded her own company, Classics on a Shoestring, where she directed a number of pioneering and highly acclaimed productions including the House of Bernada Alba and Women of Troy.
In the decades with followed, Mitchell worked as an associate director with the Royal Court Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. Whilst at the RSC, she was responsible for programming at the now defunct black box space, The Other Place, and her production of The Phoenician Women earned her the Evening Standard Award for Best Director.
Her numerous theatre credits include 2071 and Night Songs for the Royal Court, The Cherry Orchard for the Young Vic, The Trial of Ubu for Hampstead Theatre, Henry VI Part III (to date her only Shakespeare production) for the RSC and A Woman Killed with Kindness and The Seagull at the National Theatre. She has also directed opera, working with the Royal Opera House and English National Opera. An exponent of Stanislavski techniques and naturalism, her style was strongly influenced by the time she spent working in Eastern Europe early in her career. Her work is characterised by the creation on stage of a highly distinctive environment, the intensity of the emotions portrayed and by the realism of the acting.
Mitchell’s work has pushed boundaries and explored technique and, not just confined to the stage, has also taken her into other creative mediums. She has directed for film and television with work including The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd and The Turn of the Screw. In 2011, together with video maker, Leo Warner, Mitchell devised an immersive video installation called Five Truths for the Victoria and Albert Museum which explored the nature of truth in theatrical production.
She has also experimented with incorporating video into live theatre. Over the past decade Mitchell has created works in which performers use and manipulate cameras to project images onto screens. Her first foray into multi-media work such as this was Waves, a stage version of Virginia Woolf’s novel for the National Theatre, in 2006. More recently she employed these techniques in her 2013 production of Miss Julie for Berlin’s Schaubühne Theatre to great critical acclaim.
In recent years Mitchell has offered British audiences little opportunity to see her work. Instead she has concentrated on directing what have been described as some of her most ambitious productions in Continental Europe. She has worked on a variety of projects, mostly in Germany and France, including an opera based on Neil Gaiman’s story Coraline, a stage version of two novels by Romanian Nobel laureate, Herta Müller, and a feminist retelling of Hamlet.
Is her recent distancing from British theatre a result of the vehement reactions her work has provoked here? Possibly not. But she has often attracted harsh criticism not only for the work itself but also for the methods she employs, chiefly the way in which she takes total artistic control over every single aspect of the production. This control also extends to the script and the approach has left Mitchell facing accusations of having a disregard for the text.
However, it is also precisely this individuality, this intense and visionary directorial style, which inspires such admiration and praise for her art. Mitchell is seen in many quarters of the industry as a highly skilful auteur whose painstaking hard work, attention to minute detail and willingness to take huge risks has created some incredibly beautiful and unique productions. She has even been described by her champions as Britain’s greatest living theatre director and in 2009, she was awarded an OBE for her services to drama.
Whether critic or devotee, no one can deny the tremendous influence and impact Mitchell has had on contemporary theatre. “I don’t believe in art for art’s sake,” she says. “That leads to vanity. The fundamental question one should ask oneself is ‘What is my place of responsibility in the world community?’”
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