Review – A Woman Killed with Kindness, National Theatre

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Questioner: You’re directing A Woman Killed with Kindness again but this time at the National Theatre tell us something about it.

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?

KM: Lenin.***

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.



28 Responses to “Review – A Woman Killed with Kindness, National Theatre”

  1. I’d watch it just because she’s hilarious, and i don’t half love a bit of symbolism 😉

  2. webcowgirl Says:

    Oh how I love you.

  3. margarita Says:

    Someone who’d been to a post perf discussion of one of her productions told me that after some deeply meaningful questions relating to her severe case of Directoritis were dealt with as helpfully as you have illustrated someone mentioned that much action took place in marginal lighting with difficult to hear dialogue:

    ‘That’s not my concern’

    That it should come to this – The Whingers comedy has become accurate reality.

  4. ja Says:

    I have just got home from seeing it. What a complete turkey. The NT seems to veer from the brilliant to the bloody awful and this is definitely at the BA end of the scale. Wooden acting, horrible verse – a pet hate of mine admittedly – but none of the characters engaged me. In fact I could not give a monkeys about any of them. Bunch of upper class twits acting like upper class twits. The hospital scene at the end obviously used the set from the infinitely superior White Guard while the earlier set was a sort of split in half homage to the wonderful Osage County. Would that this production had even the slightest magic of either of these productions.
    I would have left after 5 minutes. The absence of an interval could only have been to prevent a mass exodus. I would have given it 0/5, not even a sniff of the cork from a bottle of merlot.

  5. Weez Says:

    At least two people I follow on Twitter have taken this interview for the genuine article.

    Alas, from what I have heard of this production, this truly may as well be the case…

  6. Ali67 Says:

    It’s absolutely dreadful. I was in a best seat and couldn’t hear a thing. I’m bored of the NT and their putting a whole house on stage designs… And Katie Mitchell is just pretentious. If I was sat on an aisle I’d have left halfway through.

  7. Ali67 Says:

    And may I say, your review of this po faced show is BRILLIANT…. One of your best…

  8. RevStan Says:

    Brilliant and oh so true.

  9. Baldassaro Says:

    Years ago, I liked Katie Mitchell’s work – both Easter and the Phoenician Women were wonderful. But something seemed to go wrong when she went from the RSC to the NT. The Oresteia was OK, but Iphigenia at Aulis and A Dream Play were self-indulgent crap (although popular with the critics). I gave up on her after that. Sounds like there’s no cause to rush back…

  10. […] (This review is for a preview performance that took place on Tuesday, July 12th, 2011. It officially opens July 19th. You have been warned. The National website describes this play as “fast-moving, frightening and erotic.” The first, at least, is true, but by 40 minutes in you will feel like the clock has stopped and it’s all just one long never ending string of unconnected scenes until you can run out of the theater into the night. For a deliciously cutting analysis of it all, may I recommend the West End Whinger’s mocu-interview review.) […]

  11. I am sold. Who wants my ticket for 19/08, its yours.

  12. theycallmechristophe Says:

    Giving a wide berth – anything that invites a comparison to Season’s Greetings is my enemy. Now – am I going insane, or did I see you at Journey’s End last night? Or both?

  13. Eddy Pearce Says:

    You were lucky! We were sat one row from the back on Saturday night with Katie and chums busy scribbling notes behind us. Mrs Taxi had to be nudged hard and often to keep her from slipping into an NT induced coma. I did notice some lucky blighters escape from the side seats when the lights dimmed. I started an escape tunnel but it kept falling in on me, those plastic sorbet spoons do not good pit props make…

  14. garethjames Says:

    I gave up on her ages ago. Your review is much more entertaining than the last four of her productions I saw. You should charge £12 and block out key parts of the review.

  15. Baz Bamigboye. Says:

    What fearless fellows you are. Splendid review.
    Baz B.

  16. Tom O'Neill Says:

    So – most Te Deum thankfully – that’s a Hey[wood]-nonny-no to What Katie Did Next. I’d been working myself into a lather of guilt about not being able to work up any interest in the 1600s also-rans. (And my God, aren’t there tons of them.) And now I can safely un-lather myself again and spend the £12 on more worthy causes, such as a decent bottle of Sancerre, or parking near John Lewis.

    Weepingly funny parody btw.
    …’Most directors don’t understand the true meaning of blocking. The clue’s in the word…’
    …’I began thinking about Pickfords which of course led me to muse about Mary Pickford.’
    …’It’s a 10 tier cake by Jane Asher’
    …’What is this “audience” you keep going on about?’
    I have known such directors. I still bear the scars. No names, no pack drill.

    PS – @WEW: I just thought you’d would like to know that the idea that gluttony is the portal to all the other Deadly Sins is not a quaint medieval superstition, but a serious theological tenet of early Christian (Greek) patristic theology (e.g. St Evagrius). Cos I know you take all that very seriously.

  17. Boz Says:

    Did I spy some prudent recycling of the Season’s Greetings set..?

    Agree with everything above, unfortunately.

  18. Deirdre McNeil Says:

    Oh dear. I have just got two seats for August 31st.
    Quite old Tunbridge Wells Lady.

  19. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    “Have you never had someone turn their back on you?” – Yes. I was standing in the aisle of the Lyttelton, having a cordial chat with Aleks Sierz, when Katie Mitchell came up, stood between us with her back to me, and began talking to Aleks as if I hadn’t been there.

    I found it quite amusing that offstage she chose to portray thoughts or feelings quite so directly.

  20. rather not say! Says:

    I saw this play tonight with a group of 5 other friends….one friend left after 20 minutes (lucky her); alas myself and the others were blocked into the row and could not escape… was an excruciating experience, constantly watching the time in our watches and what I would call ‘a storm in a teacup’…..I think we were all killed by the kindness of this play, needing a stiff drink afterwards!

  21. john burton Says:

    i agree with EVERYONE – a total pretentious mess with impossible set sightlines on audience left a shameful lack of vocal expertise from most of the actors..particularly the females leads who clearly have not taken notes from the National’s vocal coach????!!!! and have the verbal dexterity of whining monkeys….. complete total disregard for any audience…a masturbatory pleasure ONLY for the director.

  22. […] most importantly) don’t forget that I am not stealing this sort of response from other more well known mock responders. This reflects External, where everything you do is punctuated with […]

  23. […] – West End Whingers:  A biting review linked here, but taken as an example, other than the sarcasm, I wonder what, if […]

  24. Adrienne Says:

    I thought the moving of Susan when the house items were being removed was a brilliant staging devise as it demonstrated that women were no more than chattels and were just as expendable as other items in the house that could be used to to raise funds to settle debts. I thoroughly enjoyed the play.

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