Our best young director, by an inch: Show People

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The Independent Culture
SO FAR, Katie Mitchell's career has been resistant to labels. Looking at a list of the dozen or so plays she has directed since she turned professional, less than five years ago, it's hard to detect any pattern. The main thread is unpredictabilit y: Tudor domestic tragedies, Edwardian feminism, Lorca, John Arden . . . Even when she goes mainstream and tries her hand at Shakespeare, it's Henry VI Part 3 - the first time this play had been performed on its own since 1594. Still, one label is hard t o resist. Just turned 30, with her latest project, Strindberg's wild allegory Easter, opening this week at the Pit, and with a steady stream of successes behind her on the Fringe and at the RSC and the National (Ibsen's Ghosts, Thomas Heywood's A Woman K illedWith Kindness, Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, Githa Sowerby's Rutherford and Son), how about: best young director in the country?

I must declare an interest, by admitting that I know Katie Mitchell. Well, I have met her before - about 10 years ago, at Oxford University, when I auditioned for a play she was planning to direct. I read a deeply serious speech with all the depth and sincerity I could muster; and after she had picked herself up off the floor she suggested I should concentrate on comic roles. Aside from the loss to the theatre, it's perhaps worth mentioning as evidence that Katie Mitchell does have a sense of humour (myown view, of course, is that it's of a rather warped and primitive kind); in person, she's even rather jolly. The jollity is something you wouldn't gather from what's been written about her - she has been described as a "haunted ballerina'' (perhaps because she's quite thin and wears her hair tied back). Interviewers have been more impressed by her quiet, unemphatic tone of voice than her brief grins and quickfire, choppy sentences. All the same, it's easy to see where this solemn image comes from. Shedirects serious plays, and she discusses them in serious terms - last year, asked why she had chosen Henry VI Part III for her professional debut in Shakespeare, she talked about her need to respond to civil war in Bosnia and Rwanda.

One thing that's clear from her austere, stripped-down productions is that nothing is done purely for effect. It's tempting, looking at Mitchell's repertoire, to read some personal grief into the fact that the plays almost all revolve around domestic tragedy and family in-fighting. There's often a sense of claustrophobia, of the family as a prison - a theme that's continued in Easter. But you don't get any great sense of deep-seated anxiety from the way she speaks about her family. She was b rought up between Berkshire, where her father was a dentist, and Wales, where he had a cottage and experimented with self-sufficiency. He later abandoned dentistry to set up a small press. "It was interesting being brought up by a father who was science- based, butjust as I was hitting 13, 14, he was discovering the arts . . . it was the first time classical music had been played in the house."

One criticism she protests at is that she doesn't do new plays. The newest thing she's done was John Arden's 1958 play Live Like Pigs at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1993. (The impression of a prejudice against new work isn't helped by the name she gave to the theatre company she founded in the late Eighties, Classics on a Shoestring.) But this, she insists, is just a matter of chance: "I don't, like some directors, have a checklist of plays that I'm going to do by the time I'm 50. I tend to be very immediate . . . whatever grabs my imagination I'm going to do. Quickly. And it hasn't been a new play yet."

She can also point to a year and a half working with new drama as Pip Broughton's assistant in Paines Plough theatre company, shortly after Oxford (where, despite the culpable insensitivity she displayed towards fine acting, she ended up running the dramatic society). After Paines Plough, though, it was a steady diet of the classics, starting as assistant director at the RSC, working under Deborah Warner - to whom she's often compared - on Titus Andronicus. All this is good for a young director's CV; but the really formative experience was the year or so she spent travelling around Eastern Europe on a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust grant, researching theatre in Russia, Lithuania, Georgia, Berlin, and Poland. These days, when she's not rehearsing plays, she spends her time travelling (she emphasises that she doesn't own her north-London flat) - last year, Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, Norway, Japan.

When she's working, Mitchell's perfectionism is notorious. She paraphrases a Solzhenitsyn novel in which he says that the creative act is like a journey of 100 miles, and the difference between perfection and mediocrity is in the last inch. The one thingyou always read about her is the amount of research she does for her plays. To do Ibsen, she went to Norway; for Strindberg, Sweden. When Adrian Noble suggested that she might like to try Shakespeare, she read the entire canon before settling on Henry VI. For Rutherford and Son, Githa Sowerby's drama set among the glass-makers of Tyneside, she spent a week in the British library reading everything she could find on Sowerby, visited her daughter, travelled to Gateshead to look for her house, and took the actors on a trip round a local glass factory to observe the workings. This last seems a little extreme for a play set entirely in one room of the family house, but Mitchell thinks it was absolutely necessary: "With a p lay that pivots on a man's obsession with glass, you have to find a way of helping the actor to be as obsessed, and understand the nuts and bolts of how you make glass." Perhaps this is the last inch she was talking about, the one that makes the differen ce between perfection and mediocrity. And even if perfection might be stretching it a bit, you could never call anything Mitchell does mediocre.

! `Easter': Pit, Barbican, EC2 (071-638 8891), now previewing, opens Wednesday