Interview: Katie Mitchell and Simon Stephens

© Peter Kindersley
Posted: Mon Mar 21 2011

Katie Mitchell is directing Simon Stephens's new play 'Wastwater' at the Royal Court. Andrzej Lukowski finds out more.

She is Katie Mitchell, the divisive director whose trademark psychological rigour, disorienting use of video and iconoclastic reworkings of classic texts has led to her being branded an auteur. She is big in Germany.

He is Simon Stephens, the playwright whose string of acclaimed works ('On the Shore of the Wide World', 'Pornography', 'Punk Rock') explore the blankness and violence that underpins human intimacy. He is also big in Germany.

Together they are… giggling like schoolchildren.

In truth, the puppyish Stephens is known for being affable, and if Mitchell's idea of small talk consists of a stream of consciousness that starts with miso soup and ends with the end of the human race, she is very personable too. But when Stephens bounds in, her face lights up. It's obvious they take great pleasure in each other's company. That's lucky, as they are in the middle of rehearsals for Stephens's new play 'Wastwater', an unsettling triptych about a trio of relationships unfolding around the periphery of Heathrow. It's the first time Mitchell has directed one of his plays, but it's apt that she's doing so for the Royal Court as that's where the pair first met - her as associate director, him in the literary department.

This was a decade ago, and Stephens, now 40, confesses to finding script meetings under then artistic director Ian Rickson and assorted gathered Court intelligentsia, quite 'terrifying'. You'd perhaps think Mitchell would have been a source of his nerves, but quite the contrary. 'Oh, I found those meetings very, very frightening,' she nods. 'Because we had people like Max [Stafford-Clark]…'

'And Stephen Jeffreys!' adds Stephens. 'Oh my God, did he talk about plays. What you had to do was read two, three, four plays a week and then go to this meeting and advise the artistic director as to whether or not they should be programmed. And I've always said that I don't consider myself to be an intellectual, but there've rarely been times in my life when I've felt just downright stupid. I felt that Katie was an ally. That she was maybe as frightened of the ferocious rigour and intelligence as I was.'

Perhaps the pair's comparative down-to-earthness has helped them to carve out idiosyncratic artistic territories. Certainly 'Wastwater' is unmistakably a Simon Stephens play. It takes its name from England's deepest lake. 'Wastwater is defined by its depth,' explains Stephens, 'and also by the fact that it's nestled under the shadow of mountainous screes. It's never in complete daylight, so there's always shadow and darkness somewhere. It felt an appropriate metaphor for darkness and depth in a world that appears to be still.'

In part one of 'Wastwater', a mother and son part, awkwardly and at length, as he prepares to catch a bus to Heathrow in order to get on a plane for Canada. Terrible events in his past are alluded to, and his future is impossible to imagine. In part two, a pair of strangers meet to have sex at a posh airport hotel: precisely how or why this scenario has come about is never made entirely clear. And in the Kafka-esque final section, a man negotiates the purchase of a child in a warehouse on Heathrow's outskirts. The characters have awkward conversations of unnerving intimacy, but behind the words, lives go unresolved. That's the script - but this is not a director who does vagueness.

'I always feel,' says Mitchell, 'that if you're the director of the first outing of a play, then you have a profound responsibility to share the play accurately and precisely, because sometimes you can negatively fingerprint a play and maybe ruin its future life. We did a fantastic exercise that made Simon laugh a great deal, in which I ran through each of the scenes and wrote a list of questions about the back history of everything that happened. There must have been about 40, 50, 60 questions per scene.'

'It was an extraordinary rigorous psychological examination of the landscape of those characters,' says Stephens, 'almost to the extent that it felt at times that your psychological interrogation of the characters was more rigorous than mine. But I think it's important for me to retain intuition in my writing. Sometimes I write my characters saying things or behaving in a way that I hadn't anticipated them doing before the moment of writing.'

One of the most curious features of 'Wastwater' is that none of it is set inside an airport. Yet airports are constantly alluded to, and Heathrow hovers in the background of each scenario. It's steeped in the sense of limbo and liminality that airports instil, the characters detached from any past or future outside the scenario.

'I'm a big fan of airports,' explains Stephens. 'We all love flying, but, environmentally, we really need to stop, and I think there's something quite dramatically charged in that paradox which begins to define the rest of the play for me. These characters are kind of living with an attempted civility in the face of catastrophe, this is I think what the play is kind of interrogating.'

As for what 'Wastwater' will look like, rehearsals are at an early stage. But Mitchell is enthused about working with set designer Lizzie Clachan, co-founder of Shunt and godmother to Stephens's oldest son. She can also reveal that 'Wastwater' will come without her trademark use of video.

'The poor Germans are going to be so disappointed', chuckles Stephens.