KATIE MITCHELL’S PETITE S SIZE THEATRE
MADE IN BRITAIN
INSPIRED BY THE BALKANS
Balkan and Bulgarian music in particular have been following me in theatres around the world. I’ve been nicely surprised when those familiar tunes that I so cherish have suddenly resounded in accompaniment to shows in places as distant as Cape Town and Seoul, let alone cities in Europe and America.
But I’ll always remember the first show which made my heart jump, when I heard our music intertwined in its texture. It was actually a combination of “inaugurations”: my first time to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s then London home - the Barbican Center - my first visit to its Pit Theatre, and my first encounter with the work of the young British director Katie Mitchell. It was The Phoenician Women by Euripides, in David Thompson’s translation.
The entrance of the theatre was dark. Wrapped in black velvet. As if we had shrunk and sneaked under the cover of an old photographic camera and the lens was closed. But we were not alone there: the ushers were handing each of us sprigs of thyme, or maybe mint, and the fresh scent was blending with the heavy smell of incense wafting in the air.
The space in the theatre itself was organized like a square semi arena-stage. On its fourth side (the only side not reserved for the audience) candle-lights shimmered in front of three Cycladic statues installed in small niches. The rest was machinery - spotlights, cables, etc. And black benches for the audience. A space stripped down to the basics--only to what theatre can’t do without. The feeling of asceticism was so palpable as if we were in a modern monastery.
In a fittingly simple black-brownish, hermit-like dressing-gown, the first character entered. Jocasta. And she started telling the audience the prehistory of what we were to see. Directly. Face to face. As if we could as well be sitting around an open fire, not necessarily in a theatre. The next scene was not “en face”, neither was it a monologue. On a platform, at the level of our eyes, a dialogue was taking place. One of the characters being Antigone. It was a whisper rather than talking. In the background, the rumble of a pending war. Then, walking in an uneven three-four time, the Phoenician women entered. Quietly singing a Bulgarian song. And the story started unfolding. Against a beautiful and haunting, desperately sorrowful and yet soaring Balkan-music background: songs or chants, directly sung by the chorus, were substituted by a distant, hardly audible rhythm, and vice versa.
The narrative, as if deliberately, kept in sync with the three-four time of the music: episodes with direct contact with the audience were followed by episodes of a total “fourth-wall” (the audience being non-existent to the characters), then came episodes with something like a dance-trance which, albeit without words, served as a powerful commentary on the story… As if the action itself was dancing in our uneven Balkan rhythm. Opening itself to the audience, at one moment, in order to include us in the story’s three-dimensionality. Closing itself, at the next moment - like a film (no matter how moving a film is we could still touch the screen it’s projected on). Finally, leaping into a sphere of a completely different type of an impact the impact of something in-between dance and animated sculpture.
The performance I attended was a matinee but there were no vacant seats available. Actually there were comparatively few seats but the audience’s reaction resembled that of a full huge theatre. So powerful too was the acting. Human relations tangling and raveling without any décor as a background. An empty stage with naked human souls on it. Jokasta looking like a contemporary woman - struggling, suffering, arguing. There were moments when it was hard to believe that she was actually an actress. This woman was Jokasta. The then Jokasta and the now Jokasta.
As the show was progressing, it became clear to me that not only the acting of that actress (Lorraine Ashborne) but the theatre of Katie Mitchell on the whole was totally devoid of any pretence, declamation, stylizing of the human feelings… Under dozens of spotlights, surrounded by all sorts of modern stage machinery, we were able to absolutely forget that we were in a theatre, hypnotized by the utmost sincerity both of the characters and of the actors. Because this was a place where the actors seemed not to be acting. It was a place where everything was happening as if a 100-percent for real.
When the rich texture of the Bulgarian and Balkan music melted away, its rhythm went on filling in the air, this time stripped down to its core: it was the Chorus who created it - drumming with their bare feet and pounding on their breasts. Like in a speechless ritual dance. Actually the sense of ritual was palpable throughout the whole show--especially enhanced by the fact that the lead actors were joining the chorus, when their scenes were over, and then were again emerging from it.
If one was to close one’s eyes and just listen to the music of this show, one could think that this was a new and very moving soundtrack by the brilliant film composer Enio Morikone, inspired by the Balkans. With our eyes wide open though, in front of us was Katie Mitchell’s show - stunningly sensuous, profound, sincere and, in the end, topical to the point of a total dismay. A show for sure inspired by the Balkans, where its director had come from not long ago.
“The problem with modern staging of Greek tragedy has usually been musical: how do you bring off the choruses?”wrote Financial Times’ critic Alastair Macaulay after the opening night of The Phoenician Women - “But Claire Hughes’s music here…makes me hope that we may be entering a bright new era for Greek drama. Metre, polyphony, speech, chant and song are beautifully blended in idioms drawn from Eastern Europe and the Near East, different in each choral ode. There is a sense of folk tradition, of ritual involvement at its most open-spirited.”
For me this show was not only a discovery of the exuberantly gifted director Katie Mitchell and of the magnificent effect of the Balkan music in the theatre. It was also a discovery of a new type of rapport with ancient Greek drama. A rapport with it in the theatre. With one exception only, none of the productions I had previously seen could compete with the joy of reading the ancient dramas, with the intimacy of the experience of being transported into their world by means of my own imagination. And among “my” previous productions there were some of such high critical-acclaim, as Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides. The exception was Medea, with Diana Rigg,
directed by Jonathan Kent. Yet it was an exception only to a certain extent. Maybe because I had seen the show on Broadway, not in its original and very cozy birthplace the London Almeida Theatre, yes, the intensity of the impact was there but still it lacked this feeling of condensed intimacy The Phoenician Women was charged with. Soon after my first encounter with Katie Mitchell’s theatre, I had the chance to see the much-talked-about Peter Hall production The Odipus Plays, but again, no matter how much I did (and do) appreciate Hall’s ability to handle the classics, I was not moved by his rendering of the Sophocles epic. During the years that followed I saw more attempts to stay true to the classics, via restoration of the ancient methods of performance, and more experiments turning the texts upside-down. However only one more production was added to my personal list of favorites and for a while it even came a close second: Andrei Serban’s Korean revival of his original La Mama The Trojan Women, which I saw in Seoul. Yet The Phoenician Women remained unsurpassable in the #1 slot, as a first-rate example of the astonishing skill of the British to stage the classics (in principle, not only that of the Greeks) very contemporary and very intimately without ever doing so at the expense of the original text.
It was 1996 when I saw The Phoenician Women. Four years had to pass for me to come across a better production of an ancient drama. It was The Oresteia (Part I: The Home Guard and Part II: The Daughters of Darkness). It was again made in Britain (on the smallest stage of the Royal National Theatre - the Cotteslow). Again inspired by the Balkans (the soundtrack being a mixture of Bach and Balkan motifs). And again directed by Katie Mitchell, who had managed meanwhile to become one of the leading figures in the London theatre.
Kate Stratton of Time Out had written about Mitchell’s The Phoenician Women: “It’s not the malevolence of the gods…but the stupidity, greed and arrogance of human politics that come across most clearly. … the audience can do no more than watch in horror as the warring characters self-destruct. The effect is chillingly, compellingly contemporary.”
Now, not only did Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia sound chillingly contemporary, it sounded as if it had just been written - hot from the playwright’s desk. Because the show was about the different aspects of justice and revenge. Like: is the principle “an eye for an eye” a just one and how can one possibly have revenge as a driving force in one’s life? How can the vicious circle of revenge be brought to a halt? And where actually should we stop when looking back in anger down the ages? How to define the beginning of the circle, of the endless line of revenge murders? And how easy it actually is to manipulate outside observers by means of the very choice of the event presented to them as the starting point of the circle, as the triggering incident! Don’t we, in the Balkans and in many other places around the world, see this manipulation happening so often?! And how relative what passes for “justice” can be! How often the murderers are convinced that they are simply a weapon in the hands of justice! How easily available causes for committing crimes are: “In the name of someone” and “in the name of something” always so handy! And does the blame fall on the manipulator or the perpetrator of a crime?
Katie Mitchell’s Oresteia literally threw upon its audience all these problems and questions. And it did so in a stunning, knock-down way. Overwhelming to the brink of tears. Like a slap in the face coming from a sudden disclosure of a long-hidden secret. Like a mercilessly true accusation piercing our conscience. It did so as if the story of the cursed family of the ancient Agamemnon was happening concretely to every one of us. Here and now. With its whole emotional intensity unbearable for a single human being. And at the same time this Oresteia was pleading to our common sense the common sense of all of us… These were six hours on the edge of two worlds of great tragedy and of great political journalism.
To evoke and combine the emotions belonging to these two worlds is a skill the first-class British directors are remarkably good at. At that time in 2000 Katie Mitchell obviously already ranked among them.
She didn’t make radical changes in Aeschylus’ text. She simply took its new translation (one of the last works of the poet Ted Hughes) and did one more thing very typical of the best British directors: illuminating the text from an unexpected angle - new and very personal - from which the classics suddenly look different and as if brand-new.
Under the beams of this special Katie Mitchell’s “spotlight”, the Chorus in her Oresteia, for instance, consists of men in invalid chairs. At one moment they are crippled war veterans. At another journalists with tape-recorders and typewriters on their laps, covering and commenting on the horrifying events in the home of Atrides, cursed from the time when Agamemnon’s father has served his brother a meal of his own children as a revenge for the kidnapping of his wife.
When Part I of the show begins, only one of the many subsequent crimes is perpetrated: Agamemnon has sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to have the Gods on his side in the war against Troy. We find this out from a recorded testimony of a witness among the “journalists”. Parallel with the recording, the image of the victim is projected on a screen placed on the fourth side of the cozy theatre (like The Pit for The Phoenician Women, arranged in a square semi arena-stage, without any actual platform for a stage).
Under Katie Mitchell’s “spotlight”, Iphigenia’s ghost will literally hover around all the time in the home of Agamemnon: with horrified and accusing eyes, the small girl is always there and, in spite of the handkerchief tying up her mouth, her cry seems to still ring in the empty rooms after her father’s departure. She is there when her mother Clytemnestra, dressed and behaving like Evita Peron, announces the victorious ending of the war to the background of projections showing “national jubilations”. She’s also there when Agamemnon comes back. In a contemporary military uniform of a mercenary, he unceremoniously steps up on the set, long table, dragging behind himself the captured prophet Cassandra. Clytemnestra ceremoniously lays a red carpet in front of him. And it’s only him who doesn’t see that the carpet is actually made of girl’s dresses. In the different colors of blood: soaked in blood, splashed with blood, stained with blood. And several white ones before the blood was spilled on them.
This carpet is not merely the greatest metaphor of this Oresteia. It’s also the “resume” of the show: it’s enough for one to recall the girl’s-dresses carpet, to “see” it again, and the whole show rushes back into one’s mind. This carpet is at once a scream of pain and a scream of accusation. Accusation directed at Agamemnon and all those who together with him do not notice what the red carpets, laid in front of the big military commanders, are usually made of, after every new senseless war in which mankind goes on committing a suicide.
Soon after that, the same carpet will turn into the notorious net with which Clytemnestra will kill Agamemnon in the bathroom, to avenge her daughter. Her speech afterwards is like a defense plea in a court: in tears she asks the Chorus where they were when this beast killed her child to merely satisfy the caprices of a priest and his crazy brother. Then she abruptly changes her tone and, as if chasing paparazzi away, adds: “And now forget us and look for another family soaked in blood!” Aside from the Chorus, one of the invalids exultingly announces: “Now, when I’ve seen justice triumph, I could die!”
An hour after the beginning of Oresteia’s Part II, another character will announce not less solemnly, pointing at the dead bodies of Clytemnestra and her accomplice in the Agamemnon’s murder, that two new corpses are creating a memorial of justice. Orestes, the sun and murderer of Clytemnestra, dances on the table with a bloody knife in hand.
How absurd such signs of equality so frequently placed between justice and murder are, and how flexible the term “justice” can be is underlined from the very beginning of this Part II. “Zeus, please help me to take revenge!” Orestes calls upon the heavens. And had one not seen Oresteia’s Part I, now, after listening to the Chorus’ harangue in which they vividly describe Agamemnon’s murder by Clytemnestra, one would be totally convinced that Orestes is nothing but “a weapon in the hands of justice”.
The next scene gives us the creeps. Literally. Because right there, in front of our eyes, a ritual takes place in which a ghost takes possession of live human beings. And it’s as if we aren’t in a theatre. As if this fusion with the realm of the dead is possible without any doubt. Orestes and Electra dance around Agamemnon’s grave, praying that he “becomes” them and gives them strength to kill their mother. Women in black dresses are all around. Like shadows from the Hades kingdom. Sicilian accordion music fills in the air. The energy of this scene is so palpably primitive. As primitive as the vicious circle of revenge. As primitive as any manipulation of the people done allegedly in the name of justice. Orestes and Electra quicken their steps and pray louder and louder. While Agamemnon is actually standing right there--next to them. But invisible to them. As, a little bit later, Clytemnestra too will take her stand in the ghostly party, invisible to any of the living people.
The show finishes on a solemn and yet bitter note. In search of a way to bring the bloody circle to an end, Athena chooses the first court made of citizens who are to decide together what the truth about Orestes’ crime is. The lights in the theatre are switched on and we the audience find ourselves cast in the role of the jury. Athena declares Orestes not guilty and delivers a beautiful speech, proclaiming that the time of justice has at last come. Not less convincing, though, are the Furies, who are pursuing Orestes because by killing his mother he broke one of the main laws of nature and humanity. After his acquittal, they lament, from now on people will dread going out of their houses, while the criminals will remain at large. Athena declares all of us honorary citizens and justice triumphant. Now and forever. What remains, though, is the bitterness and doubt that if justice has started so unjustly, what will happen from now on and aren’t the Furies actually right?!
It was January 2000 when I saw Katie Mitchell’s The Oresteia. Britain was hit by the Sydney flu epidemic. All London was coughing, sneezing and sniffing, yet it was going to the theatre. And upon coming out of the theatre very often it looked different. Better. At least for a while.
After that January I don’t at all feel uneasy to repeat again and again the all too familiar words that, yes, great art’s potential and power of impact are infinite, exceeding any expectations. Because this is not a cliché. It’s the truth. As it was a 100-percent true that I went to see The Oresteia with 38 degrees temperature and came out of the show feeling healthy. The experience had a par excellence catharsis effect. A catharsis which no other production of the Greek classics, with the exception of The Phoenician Women, had exposed me to.
Both Mitchell’s shows were not at all done in accordance with the classical canon. Staged in theatres, the very space of which was a prerequisite for intimacy, these shows were the sheer opposite to the authentic experience a gathering of thousands of people might evoke. Yet, to me, it’s exactly Mitchell’s chamber (and very emotional in a Balkan way!) approach to the classics that is at the core of her theatre’s effect. The energy of her productions is so concentrated that they have “needlepoint intensity” (to use the pinpointing phrase of Lyn Gardner). And we are right there, in the midst of this whole world gathered on the point of a needle and imbued with the magic of the Balkan music.