Director Katie Mitchell on moving between her native Britain and Germany, staging a feminist classic at the Schaubühne and the necessary discomfort of quotas.
Katie Mitchell likes to dissect canonical classics with meticulous, almost scientific precision to present them from her own feminist perspective. It’s an approach that’s sharply divided critics in Britain but earned her two Theatertreffen invitations in Germany. For her latest production, the 55-year-old British auteur returns to the Schaubühne, her creative home in the capital, with a multimedia adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, written by Revolt. She said. Revolt again. author Alice Birch.
Your productions are celebrated in Germany, while polarising audiences in Britain. Why do you think that is?
It’s something I’ve thought about a lot and I think it may have to do with hierarchies. In Britain, the hierarchy goes writer, actor, director, whereas in Germany, it’s director, actor, writer.
Which lends itself well to your auteurist approach.
That’s right and naturally, it’s going to be easier for me to work in Germany than it is in the UK. But I do think there are also other factors. I’ve always been pro-international work and had a feminist agenda, which I think people in the UK sometimes view as negative things, even if they don’t speak openly about it. There are lots of young male directors who do very radical interpretations of classics and they don’t get the same negative reaction I do.
Do you enjoy more artistic freedom in Germany?
Definitely. I feel very schizophrenic moving between the two cultures. In the UK everyone says, just do the play, don’t be an auteur. And then when I come here, they want me to be really conceptual and radical.
How do audiences compare between the two countries?
The cultural community is much more radical in Germany. The aesthetical, political and intellectual expectations of an artist are much higher. Whereas in the UK, theatregoing is an old people’s activity. They want it to be like Downton Abbey. They don’t want it to reflect life on the streets. They go to the theatre to escape, whereas in Germany, they come to be challenged.
Is theatre more elitist in Britain?
Definitely, but elitist implies an intellectual elite. I think it’s just for a moneyed, right-wing elite. You could go to the Royal Opera House and on the opening night, you’ll see people like the Conservative politician Michael Gove sitting there.
The Schaubühne’s been your go-to stage in Berlin for some years. What keeps bringing you back?
I had known Thomas Ostermeier and Tobias Veit as friends for about 10 years before I worked at the Schaubühne for the first time. After my first invitation to the Theatertreffen, they invited me to work at the theatre and it’s become my artistic home in Berlin. I like the staff, the actors and the freedom I’m given here. They allow me to make the work that I really want to make and push me to make work that I’d never imagined I could make.
Like your new production of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando?
Well, this is interesting as a case in point, because we spent a long time trying to come up with a title for this slot. They wanted a big name and said I could do something really difficult like Orlando or a Greek drama. And I would never have thought to do Orlando, simply due to the amount of time it covers. It’s about a time-traveller going through seven historical periods. It’s really complex to move through time at the same speed as the novel. But everything’s also come full circle for me. In 1989 I got a travel grant to research theatre in eastern Europe. When passing through Berlin, I watched Robert Wilson’s one-person performance of Orlando at the Schaubühne with Jutta Lampe, which was my first exposure to theatre in the city. There’s something beautiful about revisiting it 30 years later.
You often flip perspectives in canonical plays such as telling Hamlet through Ophelia or the misogynist Strindberg’s Miss Julie through the maid. With Woolf’s Orlando, you’ve gone with a far more straight-forward feminist text. Have you succumbed to the criticisms of your iconoclastic approach?
Not at all. It is a bit of a breather though and it’s a delight to just be able to follow the writer and celebrate Woolf. Already in 1928, she was writing that we all may wear female and male clothing but underneath we are all fluid. She’s probably one of the most radical thinkers that Britain has ever produced, if not Western Europe. Her thinking not only on feminism and gender fluidity but also on violence is pioneering. There’s a brilliant essay called “Three Guineas” which is absolutely amazing in terms of her view on violence. It reads like Judith Butler.
In Orlando, you’ve taken a novel and adapted it for stage by filming it live. How does each layer of this multimedia prism affect the story you’re telling?
This multimedia technique allows us to move across time really fast. That wouldn’t be possible if you were staging it without the video component. We can jump like lightning between the 16th century and 2019 in a millisecond. We’ve also added some pre-recorded footage, which we filmed around Berlin. Matching exterior and live footage has been quite challenging though.
There’s an egalitarian aspect to filming on stage and projecting it onto screens. All sections of the audience can see the action up-close, the facial expressions, the intricate details, not just those in the best seats.
Politically, that is definitely one of the things we want to do. People always talk about “the audience” as if it were one lump sitting in the same place looking at something. But of course it’s not, it’s a group of individuals with different backgrounds, different experiences and physically seated in different places. As a director, you’re really privileged always to be in close-up. You see all the lovely detail of the face’s two hundred muscles and the agility and precision of that. But by about row 10, you’re losing detail. Using this video technique, we really can get everyone as close to the character as everyone else.
The novel has been criticised for its orientalist overtones: Orlando transitions in the exotically eastern Constantinople after an encounter with Romany travellers. Have you tried to address this criticism in your production?
The problem is that Orlando’s transformation happens in Constantinople so we can’t really duck it. If it didn’t take place there, we probably would have cut it. But we did change “gypsies” to shepherds because it’s clearer she’s following a group of nomads and more respectful to talk about a profession. We have tried to be respectful about how we stage it and we are also mindful that Woolf didn’t intend to offend anyone.
You’ve been invited to Germany’s Theatertreffen twice before – a festival that has typically been dominated by male directors. Next year, the festival is introducing a 50 percent quota for female directors. Are quotas in the industry a necessary tool to dismantle patriarchy or a condescending intervention that hampers quality?
Quotas are definitely a necessity – a short-term one. You have to force everyone’s hand and then the situation will stabilise afterwards. But a short period of positive discrimination is essential for a more balanced, fair experience. It’s painful in a variety of different ways both for patriarchy and for the women inside it, because for the women inside it, you always have the nagging doubt that it may be your gender, not your artistry that is being responded to and measured. And the patriarchy may feel compromised and uncomfortable at the removal of some hidden meritocracy. But I think it’s good that both sides are challenged. The benefits are not for us, the benefits are for our children. They’re for the future. So if we have to suffer some short-term discomfort, that’s ok.
Orlando | Schaubühne, Wilmersdorf. Oct 25, 20:00, Oct 26-27, 17:00.