Not Theatre, Not Film: Katie Mitchell’s Third Art in the »Shadow«

by Joseph Pearson

26 September 2016

I arrive at the rehearsal of »Shadow (Eurydice Speaks)« – British director Katie Mitchell’s reworking of Elfriede Jelinek's version of the Orpheus myth – and I have rarely seen so much technology and so many people involved in a production, some 50 hands. Direction, sound, video, are all busy at long tables. On stage are camera and tech people with telescoping booms, stage hands revolving around the actors, and an elaborate modular set. Floor marking, wires, cords, monitors, and a vintage VW, intersect sophisticatedly. Somewhere, in the back, I’ve heard there is a snake handler, and even a real snake, with the venom taken out. I first take a seat in row five, but keep having to sit farther back to take fully in the exciting spectacle.

There seems to be one place of elegant contemplation in the mélee. It is the director, who has a black leather jacket draped off her chair. She is quietly taking notes, then leans over to her colleagues with hushed instructions. Occasionally she drinks from her water or eats a rice cracker. I’m rather astonished by so much calm collection.

Katie Mitchell later tells me, when we discuss over tea break, »I learnt over time that delegation is one of the strengths of being a good director, at least in my book. What is my function? I hold the concept. I created the landscape in which the piece can happen, the rules of it, and I make sure we stay within the same rules. Then, I have to make sure that that network is functioning, that there are no flaws that lead to bad communication and a poor outcome. But, by delegating, what do I buy myself? More space to imagine really brilliant solutions to problems. So the more I delegate tasks to fantastically talented individuals – who are specialists in those areas – the more time I buy myself. But it is a bit busier than it looks. I don’t shout a lot, so I look like a quieter presence«.

I reply, »I think that’s one of the big problems artists have: creating the appropriate sense of distance actually to observe one’s own work – «

She nods, »Yes, when you are in – too close up – you also need to be able to stand back«.

Without giving too much away – the technique has been used in other Mitchell productions – the audience watches a well-made film being made on set, while the finished product is projected above in real time. What »Shadow« represents is a meticulous and virtuosic choreography of hundreds of cues, moving at a remarkably fast clip, involving all those talents in video, sound, acting, and design.

An impressively coherent aesthetic is already evident in rehearsal: it is a space of elevator shafts and car tunnels, punctuated by an enervating, industrial electronic score. There is an oscillation between light and shadow, the transit between life and death. A texture that is corporate and metallic pervades, while something human and spirited tries to emerge from between the wires, out from the robotic innards. Eurydice wants to spark the ignition, to accelerate into the shadows.

»For me the form is a synthesis of theatre and film which creates a third thing, which is like cubism in theater«, Mitchell explains, »What the cameras do is they allow us to see all the sides of how something is constructed whilst looking at the constructed object, which is like Picasso’s early three-dimensional portraits of a women’s head with all the planes visible at the same time. It is not either theatre or film; it is a strange other thing, which uses both the strengths of the film world and the theatre world«.

What the double narrative – the ballet of a film made on stage, and the film projected above – provides is layers of knowing. Film acts as another window into consciousness, one that allows us to enter into the psychology of Eurydice.

»Of course, everyone finds Orpheus so fascinating – even in this piece – but the cameras allow us to see him through the subjectivity of Eurydice’s gaze and therefore slowly reinterpreted. As she looks at him, we can reimagine him. The cameras give us that crucial subjectivity. If you just put Orpheus in a theatre play with Eurydice, Orpheus would win«.

Mitchell continues, »I think theatre is restricted in how far it can go into the consciousness or subjectivity of the characters it portrays. It is a very restricted form. That has a lot to do with scale. It’s always going to be a figurative artform, if you want to compare it to the visual arts. It can’t do cubism or abstraction. Whereas I think film can really enter that more subjective territory and capture how it is to be a person and to look out at the world from inside that person«.

»What exactly is it about film that does that?« I ask her.

»It’s the detail. If you think that there around 200 muscles in the face, by the time you are in the fifth or sixth row you are not going to see the detail of that. By the time you are in the twentieth row, you are going to see nothing of that. You are going to start reading the body because you cannot see the face detail. I think what the camera does is equalise the audience’s view of the detail. For me, the use of cameras is about detail and subjectivity. It gets you close«.

She pauses, and looks at me rather more intently, »In life, for most of us, the big events don’t happen on battlefields with swords, and they don’t happen in very public places, they tend to be really private. You tend to be sitting at a table with a loved one, with whom you’ve been for a decade, and you say to the loved one: »where were you last night?«. And the loved-one breaks eye contact with you for a millisecond, and the eye comes back to you and you know at that moment that you were betrayed and the relationship is over. Ten years of your life wiped out in that break of eye contact that lasts a millisecond. Theatre really struggles to communicate those moments, whereas film can do that. Here, when we are doing theatre really, we can have that wonderful moment, the millisecond«.

»And what can theatre do that film cannot?« I ask.

»Oh, lots of stuff«, she smiles, »I mean, it’s a limited art form, because if you are interested in psychology and behaviour and subjectivity – and I’m interested really in those three things – I can only get so far with theatre. But if I only do film, I don’t have the liveness of it. It can be very terrifying and dangerous to watch a film, but you are nowhere near the reality it’s shooting. But here you are very close to the craft of 50 people on the floor conjuring this film for you«.

Austrian Nobel Prize Winner Elfriede Jelinek’s text »Shadow (Eurydice Speaks)« is the subject of Mitchell’s »Third Art«. The Orpheus myth is, of course, one of the most lyrical and traditionally touching of the genre, at least at first glance. The bard’s journey to the underworld – later recounted by Virgil in the »Georgics«, and Ovid in the »Metamorphoses« – is a mission to retrieve his beloved Eurydice, killed by snake venom. The only condition of Hades is that Orpheus will lose her – on the return journey to earth – should he mistrust authority and turn back to look her in the eyes (a prohibition that creates plenty of suspense).

Not just fourth-wave feminists see the red ribbon of foundational myths in contemporary culture as patriarchal. It should then not be surprising that there is a strong tradition of feminist retelling of these myths. Jelinek is kept in good company by Christa Wolf’s alternate narrative of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (from the point of view of Cassandra waiting in a cage outside the gates of the bloody palace) or Anne Carson’s »Autobiography of Red« (examining Hercules’ heroic antics from the point of view of his victim, Geryon). By reversing the perspective, one in fact upends centuries of assumptions, arguably pulling the red thread right out from the needle. Ultimately, Elfriede Jelinek asks the central question: did anyone even ask Eurydice if she wanted to be brought back from the dead?

Mitchell tells me that it was some years ago that she was first introduced to Jelinek’s »Shadow«, but that »this text really stayed with me, and I liked her rewriting of mythological history. And without me knowing it, it had grown into something in my head. And I had an idea for it: if I could find a journey to the underworld – and it would have to do with lifts and underground tunnels, long corridors – I thought it would be possible to do it as a literal story, a text around that new linear narrative«.

»In the Jelinek text, the underworld is not controlled by men. Eurydice can be free and shed all the pressures that are put on her in a patriarchal environment. I think Jelinek is very clear about that. What is really important, in my staging of the text, is Eurydice’s agency; it is she who makes Orpheus turn, because she makes the decision to go back. Orpheus is not given that decision; he is rather in the background. A lot of people have been mostly interested in him for several thousand years, and my task here is to help the audience imagine it from Eurydice’s point of view«.

Eurydice is presented as a writer in counterpoint to the brash self-lionizing of Orpheus the rock star. The claustrophobia and isolation in which Eurydice finds herself in Hades becomes – almost like Virginia Woolf’s »Room of One’s Own« – a space for contemplation, artistic autonomy, and creation. It offers the silence necessary to create, while Orpheus’ music is always heard faintly even when he is wearing his headphones.

»When do your ideas come to you?« I ask Mitchell, »Do you need to get away? Where is your quiet place, away from the background noise?«

Katie Mitchell laughs, and suggests she doesn’t have time to get »away«:

»I’m always working. I always have so many projects on. I am booked until 2019, and already I know I have deadlines coming up for two operas. In my tea-break, I might be thinking idly about what to do, and sometimes an idea comes. But they can’t be ordered«.

Indeed, she likes being busy, »My year’s been gorgeous, who can complain? I’ve got my opera, my straight theatre, my cinema work, and I also do installations, and I really relish the movement between all these ways of making things, it’s delightful. Such is life. They unfold, the years«.

Shadow (Eurydice Speaks)

by Elfriede Jelinek
Direction: Katie Mitchell

Premiered on 28 September 2016