24 November 2017 at 10.20am | 1 Comment
Director Katie Mitchell has a record of provoking strong responses to her highly individual, intensely focused theatre productions. It’s not a desire to shock or break the rules unnecessarily, but a keen, determined focus on bringing alive what’s really going on in the stories and with the characters. For her, each story requires a unique approach to make it individual and alive on the stage.
The setting of a war-scarred ferry port made for a devastating illustration of the chaos resulting from conflict in the National Theatre's Women of Troy in 2007. So a gothic, 1840s setting for her production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor for The Royal Opera seems unexpectedly literal.
Of course, there’s not just a twist but a driving rationale. This is also the period of the Brontë sisters, who were instrumental in giving women a strong voice in 19th-century fiction. It was Mitchell’s use of a split stage that focused the similarities between two vulnerable heroines in A Woman Killed with Kindness at the National Theatre in 2011. The use again of the split stage in Lucia allows us to see not just what happens in the scenes of the opera, but what is happening to the lead character throughout: Mitchell gives us not just the opera, but the whole story – what happens in other rooms while Lucia's male-dominated narrative unfolds.
Movement is key to Mitchell’s theatre-craft too – choreographer Pina Bausch is a major influence and Mitchell notes how our emotions physically affect us and our movement. Dancing to big-band tunes showed the collective solidarity of the women in Women of Troy, and tango-dancing was a physical expression of existential boredom in Mitchell’s 2006 production of The Seagull at the National Theatre. Smaller gestures are just as important: in Ophelias Zimmer, performed at Berlin Schaubühne and the Royal Court in 2016, Ophelia’s vulnerability was highlighted as she swaddled herself in protective layers of clothing.
In Lucia di Lammermoor, every movement has dramatic meaning: from the slow, eerie beckoning of the ghosts in Act I, Lucia’s desperate pacing about and Edgardo’s furious destruction of her wedding banquet in Act II, to the terrifying murder, Lucia’s hallucination of Edgardo and her slow, stoical suicide in Act III. Mitchell’s constant scrutiny of how the emotional states of her characters affect them physically makes for an engrossing theatrical experience.
This approach is rooted in Mitchell’s interest in psychological naturalism – she analyses her texts in minute detail and works out detailed backstories for the characters with her casts. Singers and actors love this method of working, which also deepens the audience’s understanding of the characters. In Lucia we are drawn in to become progressively more interested in the heroine as we learn about her tender past relationship with her mother (who appears as a ghost) and detailed stage designs (by Vicki Mortimer) show, in Act II for example, the intellectually rich life Lucia has led before falling in love: her bedroom full of books, paintings and scientific research.
One of the most compelling elements in Katie Mitchell’s theatre is her fascination with the psychology of her female characters and her determination never to portray them simply as victims. Her National Theatre productions of Iphigenia at Aulis and Cleansed highlighted the bravery as well as the vulnerability of the sacrificial victims, Iphigenia and Grace. And in Ophelias Zimmer Mitchell had Ophelia struggle against her destiny, rather than submit passively to her fate.
Other productions of Lucia di Lammermoor might present Lucia as the sweet, passive victim of her commanding brother and lover, as in Walter Scott’s novel, but in Katie Mitchell's hands she becomes a woman of action, prepared to disguise herself in male costume for a secret meeting with her lover, to defy her brother (until he places her under unbearable emotional blackmail) and finally to conspire with her maid to murder her hated husband. Alisa, the maid, is a nonentity in Donizetti’s score but in this production she becomes a strong, maternal figure.
Strong-willed to the last, Lucia takes her life in a final act of defiance against the men who have tried to control her. It is Mitchell’s sympathetic and compelling portrayal of this complex character, above all, that makes her production such a deeply satisfying theatrical experience.
Lucia di Lammermoor runs until 27 November. Tickets are still available.