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Flipping the switch: Katie Mitchell

British director Katie Mitchell puts women’s experiences centre stage at the Schaubühne for the sixth time. Catch her take on Elfriede Jelinek's Shadows (Eurydice speaks) with English surtitles Dec 2 and 3 at Schaubühne.

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Photo by Maria Runarsdottir

British director Katie Mitchell puts women’s experiences centre stage at the Schaubühne for the sixth time. Shadow (Eurydice Speaks) does just that – lets Eurydice speak. Her mouthpiece? Living legend Elfriede Jelinek, one of the most incisive (and divisive) German writers.

“There are good things about being a woman!” announces Katie Mitchell as she turns from our interview to enter her final rehearsal for Schatten (Euridike sagt) at the Schaubühne. She’s been marveling that we’re still having the same conversations about feminism and representation as when she came of age in the 1970s: it feels like a throwback in our post-gender, queer times. She raises her arms in the air and the contrast between her black-clad form and the white foyer of the theatre throws the statement into sharp relief. Might being one of the very few, as she says, “senior” British female directors be not a liability, but… a good thing?

It’s such an obvious statement that you wonder why it didn’t occur to you. This is true of so many of Mitchell’s artistic interventions, like retelling Strindberg’s Miss Julie from the perspective of the maid. Or restaging only the parts of Hamlet that occur in Ophelia’s bedroom in a coproduction between the Schaubühne and London’s Royal Court Theater last season. Yeah: where is Ophelia for the bulk of the play? She’s on the main stage for five scenes. The play has 20. Mitchell’s production posits that Ophelia spends the majority of the play in her bedroom, trapped alone for the better part of two hours. Before seeing Ophelias Zimmer, it’s easy to overlook her absence. Mitchell makes it seem obvious.

“I think some part of one’s self is eroded if you’re always watching work made by men about male experiences,” she explains. “You need to have that balanced with work by women about women. Or by women about men and women. You need balance for your metaphysical health as a woman.” It’s not an exaggeration to say that seeing familiar stories through the eyes of their female characters is a metaphysical experience.

It’s also transformed the European cultural landscape. Mitchell walks the walk as one of very, very few women at her level. Her work tells women’s stories from a woman’s perspective at institutions across Europe, and she’s often the only woman in a given season to do so: from the UK’s Royal National Theatre, where she was the associate director from 2005-2011, to the Schauspielhaus in Cologne, where she directed two shows invited to the prestigious Theatertreffen festival, to Berlin’s own Staatsoper. Mitchell’s gotten some flak in the past for overhauling canonical texts so directly. Some critics have framed this as a misunderstanding between German Regietheater, where the director is seen as the originary artist of a performance, versus the UK, where playwrights are seen as the performance’s authors. But it’s not just the sanctity of the text that’s at risk: it’s the assumption that these texts belong to male directors and male audiences.

Mitchell has been breaking down these assumptions over her 30-year career. Miss Julie doesn’t just recentre our field of vision around the servant, Christine, even as she sleeps. It also undercuts the language of Strindberg (author of misogynist gems like “Women, being small and foolish and therefore evil… should be suppressed, like barbarians and thieves.”) with poems by the Danish feminist poet Inger Christensen. Each of her projects has its own visual world, but this ethos of stripping down and recentring is a through-line for her 70-plus productions, as is building up stories by women writers about women characters – like her adapting Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous The Yellow Wallpaper for the stage for more-or-less the first time.

Why not actually imagine it from Eurydice’s point of view? And then, if you do, why not imagine that maybe she didn’t really want to be with him?

This fall, she’s adding Nobel Prize-winning Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek to the list of “home team” playwrights she’s produced. It’s the story of Orpheus, the supernaturally skilled musician who descends to Hades to retrieve the shadow of his wife Eurydice, killed by a snakebite. He negotiates with Hades that he can bring Eurydice back to the realm of the living – provided that he does not turn to look at her until the pair leaves the realm of shadows. That’s the story most of us grew up with, anyway, cobbled together from Ovid, films, paintings, ballet and… you get the idea. Jelinek tells it very differently: from Eurydice’s perspective. You can see why the taut, angry monologue appealed to Mitchell.

“Without even knowing it, we’ve always viewed the story from Orpheus’ point of view. So Jelinek has just said, ‘Why not actually imagine it from Eurydice’s point of view?’ And then, if you do, why not imagine that maybe she didn’t really want to be with him? Maybe she preferred to stay down there? It’s dark, but it’s gorgeous. Because in the story – either in Jelinek’s version or in the myth – she does end up down there in Hades. So at least this gives her a bit more agency.”

About working with Jelinek’s text, Mitchell jokes, “She’s like a big boat plowing through the sea, and I’m one of those seagulls flying around picking up all the food that’s come out of the boat. She’s already made the big decision. She’s decided to re-write history: she’s suggested that Eurydice wanted to go back to the underworld because the real world was so awful, as was her partner. So I’m just following behind her, because it’s such a great idea.” Here, the monologue, cut to its barest and tightest by young British playwright Alice Birch, is read aloud in a soundproof box, as a voice-over, estranged from the action entirely. This production, like much of Mitchell’s recent work at the Schaubühne, is what she calls “live cinema: you can see the live film shoot at the same time as the film.” The film’s atmospheric beauty belies the enormous work it takes to pull it off – over 800 pre-planned shots in an hour and a half, cutting as often as once per second. Mitchell may be an auteur, but it’s a deeply collaborative team effort.

Retelling Greek myths from a feminist perspective… isn’t this some kind of 1970s second-wave cliché? Faced with the question, Mitchell takes a deep breath and launches into polished statistics about economic inequality. It’s clear that she’s sat on dozens of panels on the topic. “I mean, I could talk about the cultural sector in the UK. Recent research suggests that across the board people are paid about one pound per hour less in the cultural sector than in other sectors, and then – here’s the awful one – across the board, women are paid one pound less. The government is insisting now that we get legislators to declare their earnings because there is inequality between the genders. Just the baseline issues of feminism.”

But then there is also the smiling, exhausted Katie Mitchell, the Katie Mitchell who misses her 10-year-old daughter, the one sitting in an interview with a woman set up by her press contact (a woman) while a third woman takes photographs. “You and I both know that it’s still not fair. We all know it and everyone knows it.”

And so from this vantage, it’s not passé to “very authentically represent female experience, perception, and narrative.” Shadow (Eurydice Speaks) might not be Mitchell’s most striking work. But to critics who say that the gender roles in the show are outdated and black-and-white: Eurydice is a writer looking for space within her devoted but coked-out and horny boyfriend’s touring schedule. He’s a rock and roll star with legions of fans, and Eurydice “goes no day unfucked” (Elfriede Jelinek, ladies and gentlemen!).

A Room of One’s Own is a familiar fantasy – to have more time and space to write. For Eurydice, to get out of her partner’s shadow, even if that means becoming a shade herself. The final image of the play, a young woman surrounded by sheaves of blank paper and a single pen, is surely a bit knowing. But that doesn’t mean that this writer did not find it incredibly fulfilling to see larger-than-life on the big screen. It is also, it’s easy to suspect, a familiar fantasy for Jelinek, who is so severely agoraphobic that she Skyped into her own Nobel Prize ceremony. And maybe Mitchell herself, building a feminist canon year by year, creating with each new rehearsal room an open community of intergenerational exchange.

One of Mitchell’s favourite moments in the play, when Orpheus looks back and then realises what he’s done, is also one of the clearest for the audience: “It isn’t in the Jelinek, this is our interpretation – she decides at the last minute that she doesn’t want to go back with him. And she tells him, and that’s what causes him to turn. She precipitates it. I always have a little cheer at that moment: ‘Yeah! There we are!’”  

The play will be presented with English surtitles on Dec 2 and 3

Shadow (Eurydike sagt) |  Schaubühne | Kurfürstendamm 153, 10709