With its characters full of yearning for Moscow, Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters is such a quintessentially Russian play that it's odd to think that it might have had its origins in the obscure goings-on at a parsonage deep in the Yorkshire moors. But Katie Mitchell, who directs a new version at the National Theatre, believes that Chekhov was influenced by the Brontës of Haworth.
The parallels are suggestive. In the play, you have three sisters and their no-good, gambling brother; in Haworth, you had three sisters and their no-good, gambling brother. One sister, Masha, whistles compulsively - like Emily Brontë; another, Irina, is sickly - like Anne Brontë. "During my research," says Mitchell, "I found a glancing reference to Chekhov while reading Mrs Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë. I think that Branwell Brontë gave him Andrey, the brother of the sisters, and that gave him the play."
Her hunch is that Chekhov read about the Brontës, and thought, "Oh, that's interesting, I'll nick a couple of ideas from Britain, that faraway island", never expecting that one day, the Brontës would be world-famous. "In the play, Andrey's age is not stated, so we use the Brontë family structure: Charlotte the eldest, then Branwell, Emily and Anne; we have Olga, Andrey, Masha and Irina."
For Mitchell, the British connection is "strange but rather glorious: it means that British fuel has already come into the play. We already have a relationship with it". That relationship is aided by a "slightly de-Russified" new translation by Nicholas Wright - whose Chekhovian Vincent in Brixton is currently on in the West End. Mitchell and Wright "decided not to use patronymics and to change some references: Lermontov to Byron, for example".
"Three Sisters is an impossible play," she says, her blue eyes widening in emphasis as she draws an analogy with painting. "Before Impressionism, you put the important people at the centre of the canvas and the less important at the periphery. After Impressionism, every bit of the painted canvas had equal value. Despite its title, Three Sisters is about 16 or 17 people, and has four or five stories going on at the same the time - how do you create a focused narrative from such an egalitarian canvas?"
By focusing on four women. "Chekhov said that he'd written a play about four heroines," says Mitchell: the sisters and Natasha, Andrey's wife, their new sister-in-law. She argues that Natasha shouldn't be "demonised as a vulgar upstart". As a lower-class newcomer to the household, she is humiliated and snubbed. "We looked at the film Festen to see how cruel and snobbish this social class can be. The way Natasha is mocked by the sisters is unbelievable." What's the hardest thing about the play? "The radical thing is that it happens over five years. And that passage of time is the hardest thing to deliver from the acting point of view."
This comment reminds me that Mitchell is an actor's director rather than a high-concept director. Her work depends on detailed and truthful acting - she hates "big acting", with its crowd-pleasing flamboyance. She's a roundhead, not a cavalier.
Her cast certainly love her approach: Lorraine Ashbourne (Olga) says: "Katie is a seeker after truth. She investigates the text with the precision of a surgeon and then draws on our own personal experience through improvisation. Katie's process is exposing, one feels naked, raw even, and yet liberated, unselfconscious and free to explore." And Anna Maxwell Martin (Irina) adds: "It was a dream realised to work with her; she's been inspirational. To top it all, she's a great gal!"
As we discuss the great themes of the play - time, family, thwarted desire - Mitchell suddenly panics: she's forgotten the fourth one. Then she remembers: "It's death, illness and death!" she exclaims. How could she forget? "I obviously don't want to face how much that is in the play. The death of the sisters' parents, the wife that tries to kill herself, the consumption, the duel, hands smelling like death. Chekhov was dying of tuberculosis, so his work is riddled with death."
One of the play's key phrases is, "It doesn't matter". Mitchell elaborates: "A lot of characters get to the point when they feel, what does it matter, we die anyway. We'll be forgotten anyway." As if to underline the point, the tape in my recorder comes to an end with a loud snap. Mitchell carries on, her talk typically ranging from the Belgian Symbolist Maeterlinck and the contemporary artist Antoni Malinowski (on how the characters' dress is colour-coded) to existentialism. She's steeped in European culture.
Four years ago, Mitchell and her long-term collaborator, the designer Vicki Mortimer, went on a trip to Russia. Their research was for another project but has come in useful for Three Sisters. They also have some hilariously grim anecdotes about Russian theatre. "In one music theatre in Siberia, they put on a striptease in the foyer to raise money for their shows. In another, they had the Russian equivalent of MFI selling furniture - the place was full of leather suites with price tags!"
Given her enormous vitality and sharp intellect, why is Mitchell so cagey about doing interviews? "Because, often, the media has read my work as me: journalists tend to see me as a character out of a Jane Austen novel, rather earnest and just a bit embarrassing." Reluctantly, she fills me in on her family background. "My great-gran was a Tiller Girl, and my great-grandparents worked with Fred Karno and Charlie Chaplin in the music hall. My gran was brought up in Kennington, where Chaplin's house still stands. The man who beats the gong at the start of the Rank films rented a room in their house."
Born in 1964, Mitchell was brought up in a village near Newbury, Berkshire, and started directing at school. "When I was 16, I did Pinter's Family Voices, and later went to the Edinburgh Fringe with a group called Theatre of the Unexpected." After reading English at Magdalen College, Oxford, where she acted and directed, she worked at several theatres before setting up her own company, Classics on a Shoestring.
Not long after, Mitchell became a regular at the RSC, National and Royal Court. What you remember is the atmosphere of her stagings, especially in what she calls "the anthropological phase" of her work with Mortimer: the shafts of Scandinavian light in Ghosts, the shtetl Jews in The Dybbuk, the industrial gloom of Rutherford and Son. More recently, the Balkan feel of her Oresteia and the claustrophobia of her Ivanov at the National won plaudits.
But although she's the master of in-depth naturalism, I'm less keen on her handling of symbolist, expressionist or minimalist plays - Jean Genet or Jon Fosse. She shrugs off such comments - her interest lies in the process of theatre-making, and in experiment in rehearsal. She adds, "I don't have a list of my greatest hits: I could probably make a collage of things I felt happy with that would run for only 10 minutes." A true perfectionist.
What did Three Sisters teach her? "To be very calm and steady. It's real ensemble writing and it requires real ensemble directing. But I think I'm a closet iconoclast: part of me wants to realise Three Sisters as precisely as Chekhov wrote it. Another part of me wants to communicate it today, which means smashing it to smithereens - just like that clock in the play, which gets 'smashed to buggery'."
'Three Sisters' is previewing now and opens on 12 August (to 4 October) at the Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1 (020-7452 3000)Reuse content