Director Katie Mitchell's sense of what theatre is all about differs radically from mine, although I have to say I enjoyed her production of Iphigenia in 2004 at the National Theatre. For me it's a shared experience between actors and audience; for her it's all about the performance, while the audience is merely incidental; which seems to me a rather unwise approach when the audience has paid for its tickets. To be more precise, it isn't all about the acting, but all about the directing. From the first moment of this play, Mitchell signals that we are in the presence of a Director as Auteur, for whom the scene-shifting is just as important as the author's text. Before the first scene gets going, the actors are busy removing plastic sheeting from the scenery. At the end of the first act, the plastic sheeting is replaced, then removed again at the start of act two. Why? You tell me. I think it's just a bit of willy-waving to show us who is really in charge around here.
Pains of Youth (Krankheit der Jugend) was written in 1926 by the Austrian dramatist Ferdinand Bruckner. It's an example of that staple of 1920s theatre, the shocker melodrama, which reached the British stage only in watered-down form because of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship. The closest equivalent I can think of is Noel Coward's The Vortex, which only got a licence at the last minute. Bruckner's play, with its drug-taking, prostitution, lesbianism and suicide, would have been unperformable here until censorship was abolished in the late 1960s. That doesn't mean it's a profound masterpiece, however. The characters are thinly drawn and Martin Crimp's version of the play doesn't help them. 'In your dreams,' says one character to another. The ersatz-contemporary language is a shame because the set design and costumes are very much in period and are excellent. The National Theatre's Cottesloe stage is transformed into an elegant Viennese rectangular box. But the placing of some key scenes in the back corners of the set means that spectators in the side balcony seats have a very restricted view. In Women of Troy, Mitchell's last production in the Lyttelton, she placed a row of chairs at the front of the stage, as if to deliberately stop the punters in the front seats seeing too much of what was going on. Here the actors quite often turn their backs to the audience when delivering their lines, something that made this paying customer feel he was once again being treated as superfluous. I don't think Stanislavski would have done that. Katie Mitchell famously once told an interviewer the person she would most like to have swapped places with in history is Lenin, who yielded to nobody in his contempt for the hated bourgeoisie of which he was a part. 'Bourgeois existence or suicide - there is no other choice!' proclaims one of Bruckner's characters, thus paving the way for fascism. That makes the play sound more profound than it actually is. The programme is packed with well-meaning textual background on Sigmund Freud, Stefan Zweig, twelve-tone music, Swedish gymnastics, Javanese dancing and an artistic movement known as Neue Sachlichkeit. None of this is relevant as the play is about none of these things. These flat-sharing Viennese medical students do all the shocking things that people of their age are supposed to do, but it's hard to work up much feeling for any of them. There are lots of off-stage sound effects and some very spectacular scene-shifting by the cast, who not only manipulate plastic wrapping but pour out various substances into glasses and even plug lights into sockets. As anyone who sat through the same director's Waves will know, Mitchell has a way of reducing actors to meaningless automata by keeping them busy with inappropriate sound and visual effects. This show, which features that very fine Shakespearean actor Geoffrey Streatfeild (Henry V for the RSC last year), is the theatrical equivalent of something like the Turner Prize or an exhibition by a bunch of Young British Artists. Pretentious, Ich? It's too clever for its own good, and leaves me with the impression that the emperor (or in this case the empress) has no clothes. When the house lights came up at the end of act one, the woman on my right asked 'Is that the end or the interval?' When I told her it was the latter she sighed and commented 'Wishful thinking on my part.' Some people did leave at the interval, though most stayed to the end and applauded dutifully.
I am not saying that Katie Mitchell shouldn't be invited to do direct any more plays at the NT. But I suggest that since pleasing the audience isn't on her Leninist agenda, it might be better for all concerned if she simply closed off the fourth wall and excluded spectators from the theatre altogether. That way she can continue to direct her actors and have fun without bothering the rest of us.