Katie Mitchell: Well it’s an early seventeenth-century domestic tragedy by Thomas Heywood. It’s about John Frankford and his wife Anne. He invites Wendoll into his home to act as a companion. He tells him that anything in his house is at Wendoll’s disposal which he take literally.
Early Modern Elizabethan and Jacobean views of fasting or self-starvation were often hearkened to old Medieval views which considered a woman’s fasting a visual cue to a woman’s obedience, chastity, and honour. Eating, binging, or gluttony were considered to be fundamentally connected with sexuality. Gluttony will inevitabily lead to lust, as we see here. Several tract writers suggest female fasting should be a part of a woman’s education as it would make her to be a better wife and mother.*
Q: But you’ve updated it?
KM: Yes 1919. I was thinking of women’s suffrage. And the suffering. Of the theatre-goers.
Q: And you have removed the interval. The programme suggests the running time as 2 hours 30 minutes yet it runs straight through at 2 hours 10. Was this a late decision?
KM: I realised a lot of people might leave if we took a break as most of the really dramatic scenes happen in the last hour. The first half is me being rather brilliant. I wanted to make sure they experienced my whole vision.
Q: But some people are walking out aren’t they?
KM: Are they? Perhaps not as many as would like. There’s no central aisle in the Lyttleton so they can’t get out easily. But I pay scant heed to these things.
Q: The set is rather splendid and split into 2 houses with at at least 8 doors plus hallways and staircases it could almost be a set for a farce and with all the dashing about through them, the opening of the play is like the climax of a farce, what’s that about?
KM: The set is magnificent isn’t it? Lizzie Clachan and Vicki Mortimer have done me proud. One side is more suburban, the grander side is decaying and you’ll see their furniture being removed. That’s the realisation of my vision of rich people losing their money, power and control.
Q: Were you predicting recent events about Murdoch?
KM: I don’t like to be specific. Yes.
Q: A woman walks up a staircase backwards. It must have been quite tricky for her as an actress. Does it have meaning?
KM: Well of course. I don’t want to reveal too much but it’s a very sturdy staircase that rises spectacularly. Think of it as a man’s tumescence. The woman walking backwards up it suggests women heading towards things they haven’t been prepared for, be it marriage or sex.
Q: What about the opening scene? There have been complaints that the front few rows can’t see it because there’s a long wedding banquet table obscuring most of their view.
KM: Every theatregoer has a different experience. No two nights will be the same. No two sightlines will be the same, they’re all watching from different angles. The front rows of the National are cheap. I wanted them to see less. It represents the differential between the poor and the richer in our society and the extra opportunities the rich have.
Q: What about the wedding cake?
KM: I was hoping you’d bring that up. It’s a 10 tier cake by Jane Asher who had a bit of free time before she gives her Lady Bracknell at Kingston. Of course I’ve made it so the front rows can only see the top tier. It’s another symbol of the thrusting male phallus. Think of all those supporting columns. The cake appears sweet but after it comes the wedding night. The front rows will also view some of the action through punch bowls. Think of them as upper-class beer-goggles.
Q: I’m told some of the audience had problems picking up the plot and also that most of the audience regardless of where they sit can’t hear quite a lot of what the actors say.
KM: Do we ever catch everything people say? Do we listen? We’re bombarded with news and soundbites. We might wander into the lounge and hear a fragment of the news on the wireless before going off to iron a blouse. We piece it together. I’m giving the audience an opportunity to be a collective Miss Marple and work it out for themselves. Don’t you think that’s great fun?
Q: Why do the actors often turn their backs on the audience when they’re talking?
KM: Have you never had someone turn their back on you? We all get rejections. Frankford gets rejected. Wendoll gets rejected. Anne gets rejected. The dead white males have often rejected me.
Q: Blocking is important for any director. How do you handle it with such complicated staging?
KM: The idea is to obscure as many of the actors as possible, be it by furniture, another actor or even by the actor’s own body. Most directors don’t understand the true meaning of blocking. The clue’s in the word.
Q: There’s a lot of furniture shifting going on throughout the play. Did you worry that might be distracting?
KM: I began thinking about Pickfords which of course led me to muse about Mary Pickford. She was one of the biggest stars in the world and one of the first female ones. Early girl power. People loved her. It’s a shift of power between the sexes. It’s a metaphor for love. It almost works.
Q: What about cutting away during key dramatic moments to the other household mid-scene?
KM: That’s what life is like. Soap operas do it. Imagine you’re watching Coronation Street with the sound down as burglars strip your home. A friend may phone with some terribly bad news and my mind will wander to a brilliant conceit for my next production mid-conversation and scribble it down or perhaps remember I’ve left the grill on
Q: Some of the movement and props shifting is very fast then suddenly turns to slow motion. What was your intention there?
KM: Sex. Sometimes it’s very fast, aggressive, noisy and thrusting with lots of thrashing around, other times it’s more tender and gentle. Sometimes it involves a chandelier.
Q: Just after Frankford discovers he’s been cuckholded he plays cards with his wife and her lover, the games suggested are Between the Sheets and Cheat. Why don’t we see more of your sense of humour?
KM: I was going to get them to play Happy Families, but I was talked out of that.
Q: I think you treated us to a touch of contemporary dance towards the end there didn’t you Katie?
KM: I did sneak that in rather naughtily didn’t I? But people were surprised when I admitted to being a fan of Come Dancing in an interview once**. My guilty pleasure is Strictly these days.
Q: What about the first preview and arguments that it wasn’t really ready?
KM: I love the rawness of early performances. When it improves it won’t really get better in my eyes. Life is unrehearsed.
Q: If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Q: Katie you do tend to divide audiences. Would you say you were avant garde or ‘avn’t a clue?
KM: What is this “audience” you keep going on about?
* Isn’t Wikipedia wonderful?
** This bit’s true
*** This too.