The intermedial in action

3rd May 2013

Upstage there is a set with an enclosed room and other smaller spaces, including two booths like those used for sound recording. The room is dressed as a kitchen, with walls which have extensive glass panelling allowing the audience to see inside. Downstage there are elements of furniture, a table for sound effects, and video cameras, monitors and lights. This is the setting for Katie Mitchell and Leo Warner’s astonishing Fraulein Julie, originally staged at Schaubuhne Berlin and at the Barbican only until tomorrow. (I started this post on Tuesday night but it’s been a crazily busy week, so apologies for the tardiness of its appearance.) Over 80 taut minutes, the actors and creatives make and mix a live “film” after Strindberg’s play, with live sound effects and music. The appeal is both to the mind and to the heart, with an experience embedded in the late 19th century but also acutely, precisely of now. Yet for me this bold, sometimes breathtaking experiment brought to mind nothing so much as live television drama as it used to be made in the studio twenty.thirty, even fifty years ago.

This is not the first of Katie Mitchell’s thrilling attempts to make an intermedial form of performance mixing theatre and digital imaging. Five years back …some trace of her at the National was a comparable attempt to have cast and crew create a live “film” by acting out scenes and shooting them so that a mix could be projected on a screen above the exposed production process. I was intrigued by that production but not emotionally involved, and I found it hard to follow a narrative drawn from fragments of a Dostoevsky text. Fraulein Julie, by contrast, has a sharp-edged clarity and an emotional impact that is deeply impressive.

This brief trailer (in German) combines shots from the live “film” with stills of the production process:

Something of the director’s approach and process is revealed in A chat with… director Katie Mitchell, recorded by Summer Banks for ExBerliner:

The basic idea is that when you watch Miss Julie normally, in a normal production, or even in an abnormal production, you’re always looking at it in a wide shot, in film terms. But cinematic subjectivity is not really possible in theatre, so here we’ve taken one character, the least significant character – the maid, Christine – and we’re telling the story through her eyes. Which means that, when she falls asleep, the action of the play stops and we go into her dreams…

It was totally led by the film output. You can watch the scenes played in the kitchen, live, but you can also watch the film. You get the normal theatrical reality: there is the Swedish kitchen, they’re all in period costumes, they’re all acting out the scene. But the film shows the point of view of the person falling asleep in the corner [laughs], so it’s all very interesting…

Indeed it is, and the live “film”, which is for the most part exquisitely framed and achieved with split-second precision, has echoes of Ingmar Bergman and Michael Haneke. The live sound, which involves synchronised water pouring and food cutting, is equally rigorous and performed with understated panache.

Critical reaction in London has been positive, but with little sense of the overwhelming enthusiasm and excitement that I felt as I watched Tuesday’s performance. Michael Billington for the Guardian is a little parsimonious in his four-star review, but he is spot-on when he reflects

The haunting result strikes me as far superior to Mitchell’s recent experiments with a hybrid of theatre and film. Here, content takes precedence over style.

Jane Shilling for The Telegraph felt that the production’s ’emotional heart, if it has one, is well-concealed’. My response was closer to that of Henry Hitchings for the Evening Standard who described the performance as

a rigorous and highly technical account of Strindberg’s play that is nevertheless soulful, attentive to small gestures in a way that feels achingly precise.

Which chimes with Katie Mitchell’s statement in the ExBerliner interview:

For me, at the heart of everything is an attempt, maybe a pretty foolhardy attempt, to capture and crystallize how we experience ourselves in our environment – the very fragile, tiny, delicate strands of our perceptions – and to try to do that very accurately, so that it’s very respectful to life. Film enables you to do that so delicately and precisely: you see those little movements of your little finger.

For me, in case I have not yet made this clear, Fraulein Julie was one of my most stimulating and provocative evenings in a theatre for many a month. But I was struck as I watched by how the team was in many ways reinventing a craft that had been brought to a peak of achievement in the television studio some four or more decades back.

As the crew, and sometimes also the cast, prepped the upcoming shots, moved over, around and sometimes under cables, and skipped from one corner of the sets across the stage to another space just in time for the next shot, I watched a process that was directly comparable to the manner in which television drama was made with multiple cameras from the late 1930s to the mid 1990s.

In the earlier part of that period, such drama was also mixed live, although later it was shot in “as live” sequences and assembled with minimal editing afterwards. And here was a crew tackling exactly the problems that television production teams had faced, with a similar level of scrupulous pre-planning and responsive improvisation when things did not go entirely as expected. Such studio television drama also developed techniques to chisel subjective experience for a viewer from an objective “theatrical” presentation of a drama.

Multi-camera recording of drama more or less disappeared in the mid-1990s and almost all television drama today is shot on location with one or two digital cameras. But there are those of us who believe that the studio techniques, derided by most practitioners by the time they were phased out, offered a unique form of aesthetic expression that could be powerful and highly particular. So it was more than pleasing on Tuesday evening to see how this approach was being re-thought and re-imagined by creatives as skilled and as daring as are Katie Mitchell, Leo Warner and their collaborators.


  1. keith griffiths says:

    The filmmaker Grant Gee deserves much of the cinematic credit here.

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