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Declan Donnellan: ‘It’s dangerous when actors think it’s all about their feelings’

Declan Donnellan is sitting on a sofa in the north London apartment he shares with his Cheek by Jowl designer and life partner, Nick Ormerod, expatiating on his connections with the Russian theatre. He speaks so quickly that I’m hardly fazed when he says that the Pushkin Theatre in Moscow, which he knows well, and with whom he co-produces, is now run by “an exorcist… divine!”

It turns out the chap in question is “an ex-assistant of mine” and, having cleared up this brief miscommunication, Donnellan collapses into his trademark wheezy giggles while re-wrapping himself up in his winter woollies.

“That’s nothing,” he splutters, pink and beaming, “it was ages before I discovered that the spellcheck on my computer was changing ‘assistant’ on all my emails to ‘assassin’.”

Orlando James and Natalie Radmall-Quirke in a 2016-17 international tour of The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Johan Persson

He’s just come in from the “dacha” in the garden – which backs on to Hampstead Heath – where he’s had his morning shower; the heating and hot water in the house are not working today, but there’s a fire crackling in the hearth and Ormerod, having served the coffee, is downstairs doing telephonic battle with BT operatives, situated in dark caves somewhere under the Indian ocean.

Donnellan and Ormerod have directed – their work is as indivisible as their lives – more than 30 productions for Cheek by Jowl, which they founded in 1981. Today, they work in three languages – English, Russian and French – and their latest production, The Winter’s Tale, in English, comes to the Barbican next month, punctuating a tour that has stretched from New York, Chicago, Nice, Glasgow, Barcelona and Bilbao through to Colchester, Mold, Majorca and Moscow in June. Wherever the show goes, they go. Sitting at home, they admit, feels a bit odd.

It is more than 20 years since Donnellan directed Adrian Lester as Rosalind and Tom Hollander as Celia in a gorgeous all-male As You Like It. Shortly after, as an associate director at the National Theatre, he had staged a definitive version of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd – the musical had not “landed” properly at Drury Lane, lost in the vastness – and the two parts of Tony Kushner’s Aids-age masterpiece Angels in America.

Cultural differences

All of those pieces have elements of a journey through love, loss and redemption shared with Shakespeare’s poetic late romance. Will the new version of The Winter’s Tale be any different from the first he did with Russian actors, famously, and in modern dress, at Lev Dodin’s Maly Drama Theatre in St Petersburg?

“If you go down to the centre of the actor, it’s the same everywhere. The rest, the minutiae of performance, is more cultural. The Russians form themselves more naturally into a group – the word for a collective is, unfortunately, ‘soviet’ – but in England it’s more complex. English actors talk, at the end of the first day’s rehearsal, of being in a wonderful company. Russian, or indeed French, actors wouldn’t dream of saying that. The sort of intimacy and trust you need in performance takes a lot of time in rehearsal, and a different mind-set.”

This strikes to the heart of Donnellan’s philosophy of theatre practice. He loves British actors and still, as a slightly misplaced Irish Catholic, feels at home here – though he’s been “international” from the start; Cheek by Jowl was launched with no money, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, with a staging of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which was snapped up by Spanish producers who happened to drop in on the show. “So we were international even before we came to London,” he observes.

But he deplores the eight-a-week performance “madness” of the West End. And all his talk is about acting, not concept or scenography.

Iain Glen and Juliette Caton in Martin Guerre at the Prince Edward Theatre, London, in 1996. Photo: Tristram Kenton

“The British theatre is good at doing things well very quickly, and the standard is very high, there is some fantastic work here. There are 260 theatres in Moscow and, believe me, you wouldn’t want to go to most of them. But the best of them are wonderful, because they don’t produce and discard as rapidly as we do. The optimal time for guiding a play into its coming-of-age is two or three years. No one I work with abroad can believe we do eight-a-week here.” He and Nick revisit their shows once a week, rehearse continuously and travel and prepare incessantly.

They do not eschew the West End completely. They did their best by Martin Guerre (1996) for Cameron Mackintosh, but despite all the wrangling and rewriting and relaunching, the piece never found popular favour in the wake of the same writers’ Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. And a 1999 hilariously Gothic revival of Hay Fever at the Savoy Theatre – complete with thunderclaps, Geraldine McEwan in full-blown sail and extended extracts of Tea for Two – reminded audiences of Noel Coward’s sadistic streak. More recently, Shakespeare in Love (2014) was a perfectly respectable commercial production that seemed oddly saccharine compared to their mainline Cheeky efforts, and was curiously gazumped by the Mark Rylance Twelfth Night going commercial out of Shakespeare’s Globe.

Donnellan remains tight-lipped on Martin Guerre, but is proud of Shakespeare in Love, even if “it was like aversion therapy for what I do most of the time”. He adds: “Some actors get through eight-a-week brilliantly, but it’s very difficult to do that without cutting corners, and then of course you have an audience that are used to having those corners cut. If you did, say, three plays on seven days a week, that would be exhausting, but not stultifying in the same way.”

Even when he and Ormerod are not with the company – anywhere in the world – his delegated “assassin” will conduct a warm-up, run the fights and the dance, any tricky physical stuff, before the half. He confesses how weird it is to contemplate actors meeting each other on the stage each night without such a routine. Can he tell, when he sits out front? “Of course, and I don’t want to spend hundreds of pounds, or even £10, to sit and watch actors who haven’t said hello to each other that night.” You can tell that they haven’t? “Of course you can. Well, I can.”

The deep seriousness of Donnellan’s vocation (my word, not his) is attractively tempered by his Irish bonhomie – he’s descended from peasants, and it shows, thank God – and his clear insistence that theatre is a part of life, not “apart” from life; refreshingly, it’s definitely his modus operandi, not his raison d’etre.

“Theatre,” he once said, “is probably the second love of my life.” And, at the age of 63, he could see himself giving it up altogether and doing something entirely different. If he or Ormerod died, that would probably be it, theatre-wise, for the other one.

Q&A: Declan Donnellan

What was your first non-theatre job? Barman in London pubs, mostly around Ealing, where we lived.

What was your first professional theatre job? Don Giovanni for Scottish Opera Go Round in the islands, 1981.

What is your next job? Directing Pericles for Cheek by Jowl and Theatre les Gemeaux, Sceaux.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Don’t read too much, it’ll be all right.

Who or what was your biggest influence? My father and grandfather.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Make sure you can see things.

If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have been? Professional rugby player.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No, but I like to have breakfast out every morning.

Early influences

Donnellan’s parents moved from County Roscommon in Ireland to Manchester, where he was born, and then to London, where he attended St Benedict’s School in Ealing. He and Ormerod met at Cambridge University and bonded in a student production of Macbeth. Ormerod, an Old Etonian, was playing a second murderer and ‘killed’ the late Steven Pimlott [director of Sunday in the Park With George at the National and Jason Donovan in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium] every night with a cudgel.

They both took law degrees and were called to the bar. But after Ormerod completed some postgraduate design training and took a job at the Edinburgh Lyceum Theatre in the late 1970s, Donnellan would go up – “we were still courting, sort of” – and they would nip across to Glasgow where the Citizens Theatre was in its pomp producing the most exciting, and most European, theatre in Britain.

“The great thing about it was the whiff of sulphur. You never felt for one moment you were seeing something that was good for you.”

Lucy Briggs-Owen in Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, in 2014. Photo: Johan Persson

This experience was a profound influence on Cheek by Jowl’s repertoire – shown in London during the 1980s at the Donmar Warehouse under Nica Burns’ direction – of Jean Racine, Pierre Corneille, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Alexander Ostrovsky, Michel de Ghelderode, Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Alfred de Musset, as well as Shakespeare, and the recruitment of a stream of great young actors (Saskia Reeves, Sally Dexter, Paterson Joseph, Timothy Walker, Michael Sheen).

There’s been some critical huff and puff lately about a European “infection” in how we do the classics (David Hare’s excoriating of the knee-jerk adoption of current Teutonic examples) and the lack of breadth in the classic repertoire itself at the National (Michael Billington flagging up a “scandal”). With the passing of Howard Davies, you feel that Donnellan’s return there might be a refreshing blast of fresh air; first time round, after all, he did sterling work with Adrian Mitchell’s translation of Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna – probably the least-performed best-known play in the world – and Nikolai Erdman’s perfectly scabrous The Mandate.

My attempt to goad him into a response on this fails utterly. He is in touch with Rufus Norris, though he has no recollection of the NT boss’ claim that he once turned Norris down at an audition. He briefly formed a Royal Shakespeare Company Academy for Adrian Noble and directed Othello with young drama graduates, and remained in contact with Michael Boyd, but he’s not in Gregory Doran’s phone book.

“Brexit has changed things a lot,” he says, “not financially, but emotionally. Nearly everyone I know in England is depressed about the situation in Europe and in America. But I always feel welcome here. I’m increasingly aware of the speed of it all here. That hasn’t really changed; I have.”

International partners

The foothold in Russia was a result of meeting Dodin at a festival in Helsinki. In France, they were invited by Peter Brook to produce anything they liked in his Bouffes du Nord (they chose Racine’s Andromaque, which was like taking Comedie-Francaise coals to Newcastle, until they scored a great hit).

Lydia Wilson in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore at the Silk Street Theatre, Barbican Centre, London in 2012. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The result is that, in a comparatively hand-to-mouth existence, Cheek by Jowl’s operation is sustained by Arts Council England, the Barbican Centre – the company’s London home, where it keeps an office – and key associations with the Russian Theatre Federation. The latter runs the prestigious Chekhov Festival in Moscow, where they have often figured, and the Theatre les Gemeaux (“the theatre of twins”, or Nick and Dec, presumably) in Sceaux, one of France’s national theatres 10km south of Paris. In Russia, they have additional producing affiliations with Dodin’s Maly Theatre and also the Bolshoi Ballet, where the company has staged a controversial version of Sergei Prokofiev’s masterpiece Romeo and Juliet (admired by Russian critics, loathed by our lot).

This is a unique stew, or network, of associations and it surely keeps their work as fresh as it always seems when it turns up here. When they did Thomas Middleton and William Rowley’s The Changeling in 2006, with Tom Hiddleston and Olivia Williams in the cast, the play had not been seen in London since 1988 (a lush Goya-esque staging by Richard Eyre at the National) and was placed on the Barbican stage with the audience, as if in a laboratory. It sizzled.

By 2012, they settled into the Guildhall School’s Silk Street auditorium in the Barbican for a blood-soaked, samba-rhythmed ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, the sex and violence in John Ford’s great play acted out entirely in Annabella’s bedroom.

And they reached a new level of brilliant classical interpretation with Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (co-produced with Sceaux), also in Silk Street, re-energising Jarry’s surreal 1896 spoof gore-fest as a chic Gallic dinner party, where the superficial pretence of hospitality was a tyrannical regime and the kitchen an abattoir (nobles and financiers were literally put through the blender).    

A scene from Ubu Roi in a 2013-15 international tour. Photo: Johan Persson

Declan reminds me that Ubu was so successful that it moved on to the Barbican main stage to meet the demand.

“I prefer Silk Street, but the Barbican’s not bad; it’s just so big that you have to be careful not to fall into the trap of creating spectacular effects.” I’m interested that “spectacular effects” is such a dirty phrase in common critical parlance, as if one side of what theatre can do, as realised by the Victorians as much as the Greeks, was now a form of artistic leprosy.

Declan enjoys a big glossy show as much as anyone – though, in truth, he prefers to sit at home with box sets, agog at how marvellous television is at the moment, especially for its acting.

This is what comes back for him, always. “A major part of my work is getting people to do things in the present tense. I once had an actor say to me: ‘My character wouldn’t say this line’, and that sort of thing is getting much worse. It’s very dangerous when actors, in their training, get deluded into thinking it’s all about their feelings. That’s about sympathy. But acting is really about dealing with other people’s feelings: empathy, not sympathy. You can’t see people properly if you hug them too close. You have to create a distance. It’s the simple things. I love the story of someone asking a rabbi why they can’t see God any more; it’s because, he says, they won’t stoop low enough.”

Declan Donnellan’s top tips for aspiring directors

• Learn about acting and, if you’re lucky enough to be offered a teaching job, take it. Make sure you waste time: just watching people doing something is great… the promenade, the passeggiato, sitting and watching people in a cafe. You learn a lot. It’s a sense of seeing people for what we and they are, and for what we and they believe. And remember: it’s all about understanding people’s differences, not finding yourself in them. Then you can start with the hard stuff of finding true intimacy in the rehearsal room.

Experiment in film

In the early 1980s, it was small fit-up companies such as Cheek by Jowl, Deborah Warner’s Kick Theatre and Simon McBurney’s Complicite that set the agenda for a vibrant new theatre with a European, internationalist outlook. Their influence remains a power in our theatre culture, but it’s not ingrained. And like Warner, Donnellan and Ormerod have made just the one feature film. Theirs was Bel Ami (2012), a rather underrated adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s fin de siecle novel starring Robert Pattinson as the dissolute French soldier who rises to the top in society and journalism through the simple expedient of sleeping with his employers’ wives (played by the glorious trio of Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci).

Nancy Crane and Stephen Dillane in Angels in America at the Cottesloe, National Theatre in 1992. Photo: John Haynes

“We were terribly apprehensive, and the first few shots were unsteady. Then I went to the actors and Nick went to the crew and our relationship was completely reversed; I became very quiet, and Nick, who’s usually as quiet as a mouse, started shouting and screaming in a complete personality make-over. It was totally exhilarating, because you sort of work in an improvised area on the studio floor, and that’s what we do all the time in the theatre.”

Had they initiated the movie? “That’s the problem. They came to us. And the trouble is the set-up – the money, the lunches, the casting is volatile and always falling through. You end up shooting unready with a gun up your backside, like a cattle prod. So we don’t have the time for all that, really. But on Bel Ami, we came alive in the shoot. Nick was shouting his head off and one day just looked at me and said, ‘Declan, I’m so happy.’ And indeed, it’s true, like Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, we were so happy… for a time.”

But this was a holiday in their routine, their system of work and their shared life in the theatre. What does he now feel about the imminent return of Angels in America at the National? “I think it’s wonderful it’s coming back. It’s becoming much more than what it’s about; everything in that play is mediated through the needs and carnality of human beings. We spent two or three years on that play, and though a lot of it is ours, great writers dissolve themselves in what they do. And Angels is absolutely Tony Kushner.”

CV: Declan Donnellan

Born: 1953, Manchester
Training: English and law at Queen’s College, Cambridge; called to the bar, Middle Temple, 1978
Landmark productions: Fuente Ovejuna, National Theatre (1989), As You Like It, Lyric Hammersmith, London (1991); Albery Theatre, London (1994), Angels in America, National Theatre (1991-93), Sweeney Todd, National Theatre (1993), Martin Guerre, Prince Edward Theatre, London (1996), The Winter’s Tale, Maly Drama Theatre, St Petersburg (1997), Hay Fever, Savoy Theatre, London (1999), Andromaque, Bouffes du Nord, Paris (2007), ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Silk Street Theatre, Barbican Centre, London (2012), Ubu Roi, international tour (2013-15), Shakespeare in Love, Noel Coward Theatre, London (2014)
Awards: Olivier for director of the year for The Cid, Twelfth Night and Macbeth  (1987), Olivier for outstanding achievement for Fuente Ovejuna (1990), Olivier for best director of a musical for Sweeney Todd (1994), Olivier for best director of a play for As You Like It (1995), Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (2004), Golden Lion of Venice for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennale (2017)
Agent: Fiona Williams, Marc Berlin Management

The Winter’s Tale runs at Theatr Clwyd, Mold [1], from March 21-25, and is touring the UK and internationally until June 10