Love and death

Two suicides inspired Katie Mitchell's new staging of Handel's oratorio 'Jephtha'. The director explains how haunting modern images combined with a piece that is more than 250 years old
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Ferida Osmanovic hanged herself from a tree after the fall of Srebrenica on 11 July, 1995. She had lost her husband in the massacre the previous day. She left behind two children.

Ferida Osmanovic hanged herself from a tree after the fall of Srebrenica on 11 July, 1995. She had lost her husband in the massacre the previous day. She left behind two children.

A photograph taken by Darko Bandic, a freelance photographer, at about 5.30am, shows Ferida wearing a white dress and a red cardigan. The early sunlight shines on the leaves of the trees surrounding her dangling body. She has no shoes on, and her head is not hanging down: it is straight, perfectly and strangely aligned with her spine. The photograph is taken in profile so you do not see her face, just her slightly messy bobbed hair.

There is something horribly haunting about this dead woman together with the peaceful trees, the sunlight and the stillness. The picture was widely published and without doubt helped helped draw attention to the massacre in Srebrenica and re-ignite public and political interest in the war itself.

Now we are engaged in a somewhat different conflict in the Middle East, but again it is a suicide in a woods in the summer which, for many, has come to embody the moral uncertainty behind our involvement in this new conflict. In July 2003, David Kelly took painkillers and cut his left wrist. He was found in the morning slumped at the foot of a beech tree.

I remember reading that it was raining when he did it, but, in the recent television drama, the late afternoon sun shone through the beech trees as Kelly sat down to kill himself. In this drama, like in the photograph of Ferida, the tension between that still and sunny copse of beech trees in Oxfordshire and the act that Kelly is about to commit is incredibly disturbing. Like Ferida he left two children behind, as well as a wife. Eight years separates these two suicides, and they happened in two very different countries in very different circumstances, but the impact is the same.

In my imagination there is a shadowy world of men in suits operating behind these two suicides. There are politicians, lawyers, soldiers and civil servants working overtime to paper over the moral cracks that our involvement in those two countries created. But they can not obscure the acts of self-destruction. It is a strange world in which suicides like this help give one some sense of moral bearings in a sea of self-interest.

I have been haunted by these two suicides, and the impact has been both moral and aesthetic. In theatre or opera, one is constantly looking for metaphors or images to embody difficult ideas. One draws on sources from both the real world and the imaginary world inside one's head. But, when the images from the real world puncture one's sense of comfort or certainty with the force of these suicides it is impossible, as an artist, to erase them. You find them seeping into the soil of your work.

In a piece of theatre or opera you can never hope to explain a complex political or military situation. There is simply not enough time. You have to use images which epitomise or crystallise the situation or idea you are communicating. And theatre's power lies, in many ways, in its ability to present powerful images, particularly of human beings in extreme circumstances.

Handel's oratorio Jephtha was written in 1751. Its librettist, Morell, was a clergyman and a scholar in Ancient Greek. He built the text around the original story from Judges and mixed it with elements of the ancient Greek myth of the sacrifice of Iphigenia. At the time of composition, Britain had been involved in wars for more than a decade, first with Spain in the West Indies, then with France in a pan-European conflict which had been unsatisfactorily resolved in 1748. By 1756, the country was again to embark on a war with France which would last seven years. All the fighting happened away from British soil.

The Handel specialist Ruth Smith suggests that this home-grown British oratorio was fed by a nationalist political agenda and, despite its religious and historical content, was rooted in contemporary politics. This link between an ancient story and 18th-century politics was pivotal in our thinking about how to stage the oratorio today. Just as Handel's piece would have spoken directly to his audience about a contemporary military and political situation, so we wanted to find a way for our production to speak as clearly to audiences in London about the recent military forays in the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia.

We chose the second half of the 20th century as our period, and a bombed-out hotel as our setting. The hotel was built in the 18th century, which refers back to the period in which the oratorio was written, but it had been buffeted by decay and war.

Central to the oratorio is an innocent little girl whose life is suddenly placed in the balance because of the blind ambition of her father. The father himself, half soldier, half politician, exists in a shadowy political world where morality is sacrificed to political expediency. Like George Bush, the first thing he does on gaining command of the country is to insist on regular prayer ceremonies. However, he is also quite happy to strike deals with God about wars he is embarking on, without thinking through the possible moral consequences.

The brilliance of the story is the way in which the action brings the father face to face with the price of war and the price of his ambition. He is forced to kill his only child in order to secure a peace and, more importantly, his power.

It is in the development of the image of his daughter that we attempt to crystallise the moral ambivalence of the piece - in the same way that the images of the suicides of Ferida Osmanovic and David Kelly did in 1995 and 2003.

'Jephtha' opens at the Coliseum, London WC2 on 12 May and runs in rep until 15 June (020-7632 8300;