THEATRE / An eye for the small print: Katie Mitchell has chosen to cut her Shakespearian teeth on Henry VI, Part 3. Paul Taylor analyses a young director's decision-making process

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The 'fourth wall' will be vanishing with a vengeance for Katie Mitchell this evening when Henry VI, Part 3, her first professional tussle with Shakespeare, opens at Stratford's Other Place. In London, you can catch, at the moment, two highly acclaimed productions by this 29-year-old rising star of the directing world. At the Pit, there's her revelatory RSC revival of Ibsen's Ghosts; at the Cottesloe, Githa Sowerby's neglected play of 1911, Rutherford & Son, emerges, in Mitchell's grimly powerful staging, as a play whose tragic insights are more far-reaching than might have been supposed from its reputation as a curio of Edwardian feminism.

Both of these pieces unfold, though, in bleakly oppressive domestic interiors, with the audience cast as unacknowledged eavesdroppers. Henry VI, Part 3 erupts with a passion through this kind of invisible barrier. As Mitchell enthusiastically notes, '40 per cent of the play takes the form of direct audience address, as the characters manipulate opinion in a dramatic debate about civil war.'

So the contrast of conventions may help to explain why she has been drawn to a work, which, on the face of it, is a peculiar choice for a Shakespeare debut. Mitchell says that Adrian Noble, the RSC's artistic director, laughed and asked her if she was serious when she told him that this, of all the canon, was the one she wanted to tackle. He has, of course, directed it himself, but in an abridged form and as part of the sweep of the Plantagenets, his fine, slimmed-down version of the 'Wars of the Roses' tetralogy. And even he couldn't, she was amused to discover, remember at what precise point in the internecine wranglings this play begins.

Mounting it on its own, as though it were a clean, free-standing work, has scarcely been done before and is an activity hedged about with both opportunities and liabilities. Can, say, the fact that the characters don't start out, in this showing, already burdened with our sense of their accumulated history be turned to dramatic advantage? And while Mitchell certainly has the chance to dwell on the distinctive merits of the play, identifying what these are is a trickier business than you might think, given that Shakespeare didn't write the three parts of Henry VI in sequence.

Not that Mitchell is exactly new to a challenge. Her first production for the RSC, three years ago, was of Heywood's A Woman Killed with Kindness, a Jacobean domestic tragedy peculiarly difficult to bring off for an audience today because of the rebarbative remoteness of its values. In the main plot, a Yorkshire farmer, finding his wife in flagrante with a friend and house-guest, takes what could look, to modern eyes, like the sheerly selfish and sadistic revenge of divorcing her from her children and banishing her to an outlying estate where he knows her remorse will destroy her.

One of Mitchell's key virtues as a director, though, is her ability to think and feel her way into alien cultures, value systems and social atmosphere. She confesses herself a 'closet anthropologist', for whom being given the excuse to investigate ways of life far removed from her own is a major attraction of directing.

For her lauded 1992 version of the classic Yiddish play The Dybbuk, she went walkabout in the Ukraine, talking to Jewish survivors about their memories of life in the shtetls and recording everything from peasants to birdsong. Taking Ibsen at his word that you can never fully understand his work unless you have visited Norway, she packed her bags and went. The understanding that this trip gave her into the relationship between climate and character was powerfully absorbed by the subsequent production, where the weather became integral to the play's psychological texture and where the precise evocation of Norwegian light gave delicate shadings to the play's emotional gloom.

Her work on A Woman Killed with Kindness benefited, she thinks, from the time she spent in eastern Europe on a Churchill Fellowship researching directors' training and rehearsal techniques. What impressed her, travelling there, was the way in which cultural minorities (Catholic, Russian Orthodox and so on) 'clung to religion as a way of giving structure and form to their lives'. Her resulting refusal to condescend to, or underestimate the importance of, religion in earlier periods of our own history was bracingly evident in the way she portrayed the close-knit Yorkshire rural community in A Woman Killed, a piece of imaginative empathy that demonstrated many of her trademark strengths.

Covered with loose bark chips and wood-shavings, the stage was dominated by a mighty Celtic cross, with ribbons like a maypole, to which the characters turned every time they mentioned God and at the foot of which they laid harvest produce. At the Frankfords' wedding, the guests danced to the accompaniment of rousingly chanted devotional Latin. As the Renaissance scholar Anne Barton finely perceived in an appreciation of the production in the TLS, it was an acute stroke of Mitchell's to root the play in a Catholic backwater of Puritan Yorkshire, where ritual had retained a pagan flavour, for it enabled her to make manifest the implicit tension in the play between religious faith and an honour code that would support the revenge-killing of an adulterous wife or endorse her suicide.

Against all the odds, behaviour that it would be easy to subject to a crude feminist deconstruction became, thanks to Mitchell's powers of cultural empathy, both comprehensible and heart-rending, the one tricky and agonising way in which this couple could, without losing face in terms of the honour code or without risking the eternal damnation dangled by the other value system, eventually reaffirm their love for one another.

Simon Russell Beale, who plays Oswald in her Ghosts, says her rehearsal process is 'phenomenally rigorous' and that she'll throw questions at you about your character like: 'Was it soggy underfoot when you went out for a walk?' Jane Lapotaire, Mrs Alving in the same production, says she has 'a total grasp of detail and a ruthless dedication to text', instanced in the way she restored and found dramatic justification for every last dash of Ibsen's original punctuation. Her tireless research suggests a passionate need to feel that drama has direct access to non-theatrical life. As Russell Beale agrees, it would be hard to imagine her wanting to do a Pirandello, say, or any art that was about art.

In that respect, he claims, she is in the opposite (Roundhead) camp to Cavaliers like Sam Mendes, Nicholas Hytner and Matthew Warchus. Her work is often compared, in its elemental spareness and ritual intensity, with that of Deborah Warner, whose production of Titus Andronicus she saw 30 times while acting as the third assistant director. But her out-and-about research methods are more like those patented by Joint Stock: art very much for life's sake. With typical guileless honesty, she admits to not being very smitten by most of the Bard's work. Her ambition with Henry VI, Part 3 is to help people think more rationally about the civil wars that torment the planet today. When I quiz her about its canniness as a career move, a smile cracks open that strained ballerina face of hers: 'That's not really a topic you can discuss with someone who's doing a play that hasn't been seen on its own since its previews in the 1590s . . .'

The Other Place, Stratford (0789 295623)

(Photographs omitted)