Katie Mitchell: 'I'd hate to hang around making theatre when they're tired of it'

Theatre director Katie Mitchell's work has horrified many critics – but others love her plays. She tells Alice Jones how she thinks her latest venture, 'The City', will be received

Katie Mitchell is sitting in a draughty church hall in south London rhapsodising about a surprisingly glamorous formative influence. "I used to love watching Come Dancing," she says, starry-eyed, her half-eaten sandwich poised in mid-air. "All those women in amazing frocks with fluffy yellow frills. At its heart, it's such a beautiful metaphor for men and women together." By the time these frills and footwork have undergone the Mitchell treatment, of course, they are largely unrecognisable: think of her coquettish foxtrotting chorus in Iphigenia at Aulis, her mismatched, passionless couples doing the tango in The Seagull and, most recently, her bereft women of Troy dancing a frenetic, desperate quickstep with only the ghost of their partner to guide them.

Depending on where you stand in the Mitchell debate – and she is a director who polarises audiences like no other – her relentlessly innovative approach to theatre either dusts off the classics, bringing them back to the stage with a spring in their step or it trips them up with clumsy rewrites and clashing anachronisms. "It's very curious that people so hate one thing, so like another," she shrugs. "But you can't tell people how to receive your work, can you? That would be consummate arrogance."

Her latest project is directing Martin Crimp's new play The City at the Royal Court. Crimp and Mitchell are an established double act, having collaborated on both his plays (most recently, Attempts on Her Life) and his versions (The Seagull) over the last decade. They make an intense if odd couple – she a diminutive bundle of precisely focused energy, her short, grey-flecked hair scraped back from piercing eyes and cheekbones, he a rake-thin, wraith-like figure, hiding behind a smooth curtain of white hair. They work together "hand in glove", says Mitchell, who even has to have a whispered consultation with the playwright before she allows herself to answer my first, basic, question. "What's it about? Failure of imagination. Sex. And employment." Right.

Crimp is famously protective of his work, refusing to release scripts until opening night and indeed, when I arrive at the rehearsal rooms five minutes early, I am quickly asked to leave and wait outside lest I overhear a precious fragment. So it may or may not be a companion piece to The Country, Crimp's sinister, cryptic three-hander about a married couple who move to the country to escape their demons, which Mitchell directed at the same theatre in 2000.

For The City her long-time designer Vicki Mortimer is on board again as is Hattie Morahan, who played Nina in The Seagull and Iphigenia. The 43-year old director prefers to work with a tried-and-trusted family. "You waste a lot of rehearsal time learning someone and sharing with them how you want to work," says Mitchell. "I'm quite a shy person and I find that stage of getting to know a collaborator quite agonising, like being at some awful cocktail party."

Benedict Cumberbatch and Amanda Hale (a wonderfully nervy Laura in The Glass Menagerie) are both new to the rigorous Mitchell method. Kate Duchene, Hecuba in Women of Troy and a frequent face in the director's casts, recently agonised in an interview that if she became "a Katie Mitchell actor", all other directors would be "scared" of her. It's true that Mitchell is the closest thing the British theatre has to an auteur. "I find it quite hard that I give the impression of such a strong personal signature," she demurs. "That's not my intent."

Though it wasn't much talked about during her Berkshire upbringing – "I don't know why, perhaps it was a class thing" – theatre is in Mitchell's blood. Her great-grandparents met in the music hall. She was a Tiller girl and he worked with Charlie Chaplin and Fred Karno. "He went on the South African tour but then he was forced by my great gran not to go on the American one so he missed all the success and became a bookie instead."

Mitchell directed her first play, aged 16, at Oakham School. In a typically audacious move, she reconceived Harold Pinter's little-known radio play Family Voices for the stage, as well as playing the piano and acting in it. She went on to study English at Magdalen College, Oxford, and threw herself into the university's drama scene as well as gorging on the work of the avant-garde – from Hesitate and Demonstrate to Pina Bausch. Her first job was stage managing and working in the kitchen at the King's Head Theatre Pub in Islington, London, before she became an assistant director at the experimental Paines Plough and the RSC and travelled around eastern Europe, learning from the great theatre practitioners Lev Dodin and Tadeusz Kantor. In the early 1990s, she set up her own company Classics on a Shoestring and was eventually made associate director at the Royal Court and the National.

With such an eclectic background, it's no surprise that her career has always leapt between extremes – from the classics to brand new; from straight ensemble acting on a bare stage lit by candlelight to hi-tech multimedia extravaganzas such as Waves and Attempts on Her Life in which live action is filmed in close-up by the actors and projected on to video screens. Although the latter direction has caused its fair share of huffiness amongst theatre purists, it is Mitchell's bashing around of the classics that has made her name.

"Bash them around is a bit cheeky, isn't it?" she says. "I cut them, let's say, with careful consideration without dismantling the idea structure that is at the heart of the play. People think I might be wilful in some way with the material but no – my aim above all is clarity. They think it's 'oh, let's just throw it all together in this irresponsible, anachronistic fashion and see what happens.'"

She's still smarting from the reaction to The Seagull in 2006 – critics groaned at its inconsistencies and one particularly disgruntled punter posted her a programme with "RUBBISH!" scrawled across it. "It was surprising. In retrospect I can see where I made the errors. But I bet you, even if I had corrected all the things which weren't clear, I'd still have got the same reception for it," she sighs. "I felt that Chekhov had almost been adopted into the family of British theatre. He'd become almost equal to Shakespeare. But it did obviously really offend and I genuinely didn't intend to."

The vociferous reaction rumbled on into last year when Nicholas Hytner, the artistic director of the National, singled out – wrongly – Mitchell's work as the victim of "misogynistic reviews" in his diatribe against "dead white male" theatre critics. "I felt incredibly supported by him but also a little exposed. If anyone were to take the comment amiss, I'd be a natural target for their upset." But where she shrugs off the importance of her gender, she is more forthcoming about the changes that her two-year-old daughter, Edie, has wrought on her work. "It's like someone has removed a layer of skin so you're so much more vulnerable." Has motherhood made her a better director? "I suppose I'm privileged to understand a lot more about human experience. I've watched someone die once – my dear granny – and I've never recovered from that. And I can't recover from having a baby. How you understand the world changes. And I punish myself so much now about how I didn't understand actors who had families and who didn't want to rehearse 24/7."

There's no let-up for Mitchell though. Next is ...some trace of her at the National, a multimedia piece inspired by Dostoevsky's The Idiot starring Ben Whishaw. She has just "boiled it down to 60 pages", a move not likely to endear her to those still smarting from her chopped-about Chekhov. But she is nothing if not ambitious and would love to direct a film, do a musical – "but no one would let me" – and create a children's show for Edie. "But I'd hate to be one of those people who still hangs around making theatre when they're tired of it," she says. "I'd rather go and work in a bookshop."

'The City', 24 April to 7 June, Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020-7565 5000)

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London