INTERVIEW: Declan Donnellan

“Is there a little bit of Ubu Roi in all of us?” Emily Hardy asks acclaimed theatre director Declan Donnellan.

Declan Donnellan

It was an interview that started like any other

Declan Donnellan and I exchange pleasantries and begin, as intended, by discussing Cheek by Jowl’s touring production of Ubu Roi, directed by Donnellan and designed by company co-founder, Nick Ormerod. Alfred Jarry’s 1896 brutal satire comes to the Barbican in April as part of Dancing around Duchamp, a season celebrating Marcel Duchamp’s influence on artists of the 20th Century. Featured is the work of Duchamp’s predecessors, his collaborators and those who continued his radical legacy, safe in the hands of leading contemporary artists. It comes as no surprise that Cheek by Jowl, who, in my opinion, represent the country’s theatrical achievements internationally like a premiership football team, have their own contribution to make.

“This production of Ubu grew out of a performance commissioned by Peter Brook of Andromaque with nine fantastic actors in it. We really wanted to work with these actors again and they were very keen to come back and stay as a homogenous group. So, we began the long struggle of finding a play that would perfectly deal with them.”

Is that not an unusual method – choosing a play to compliment the actors instead of the other way around?

“It’s very much a European method. The Russian repertoire system is brilliant and I’ve learnt a lot from it. It happens to correspond to where my heart is which is that you have a group of actors, more or less, and you chose a play to go with them rather than, ‘I’ve got an idea to do this play; let’s go out and audition people for it,’ which is what happens in England. And that’s fine. I like to do that some of the time, but not all of the time. I’m very very very very lucky and very very very very grateful that I have the choice. My choice is to be nourished by these two different things.”

The Evening Standard describe Cheek by Jowl as “national treasures in two countries – their native England and their adoptive Russia,” and Donnellan agrees when I suggest that the company’s international work is, if you like, its ‘unique selling point.’

“What’s strange about us really is that we’re producing work in three languages.”

Was that always the plan?

“We’ve never really had plans. What I would say is that you must make a choice between taking your career seriously and taking your work seriously. You can’t do both. People often get so freaked by their CV’s and their careers that they are never really present in their work. They are always slightly double parked.”

How true. I was already being inspired by Donnellan’s words, words that were both refreshing and reassuring. Was he about to restore my faith in theatre?

“What I’ve found in my life is that it is very important to have no grand plans. Looking back it looks like some marvellous plan, but you don’t set out to do that. It’s all one mad improvisation of ‘what do we do next?’ That’s the reality of artistic existence. So, ‘did we plan to be international?’ Well, no. In 1980 we were desperate to perform in London – we were kids. But, we would get international invitations and we just followed. There was something in the stars.”

I was suddenly insecure about my next question; it occurred to me that I was holding my tea-cup in front of my face, like some sort of shield. I took a deep breath (and a risk) and described my first encounter of Cheek by Jowl’s work – the company’s 2004 production of Othello, in traverse, at the intimate Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. I recalled being transfixed by Declan’s deconstruction and humanisation of the eponymous characters, how it didn’t feel as though an actor was taking on the role of Othello, for example, but, on the contrary, that Othello felt like everyman. I remember how it was uncomfortable to witness the envy, the lying, the manipulation, the murders which felt, not like dispicable deeds, but justified, extreme, human responses.

Understand my relief when Donnellan said, “Thank you for that, that’s the nicest thing you could have said.”

I put down my cup and knew, from this point onwards, Donnellan would too let down his guard. Suddenly the interview goes beyond the remit of my meticulously planned questions, increasingly futile. He talks to me, not about production values, venues, facts or figures, but about life… theatre and life.

“For me the important thing is that you are always putting life on stage and part of that is to do with being a human being. The common humanity of what we do is incredibly important to us and it touches me very much that you said that. We hope that people respond in the way you have and not, ‘oh that was a very clever interpretation,’ or ‘what were you trying to say by that?’ I’m never ‘trying’ to say anything.”

“We are not born particularly empathetic and we are not born knowing how to love. I think we have to learn these things. We have a capacity for these things as babies but you can’t love somebody until you know who they are. I think that the reason we go to the theatre or see any kind of art is because it gives you some sense of another world, enables us to leave our own miserable self-obsession and experience, just occasionally, what it might be like to be somebody else, or what it might be to suffer or have joy, or fall in love like other people. We can celebrate our common humanity by witnessing and accompanying people on journeys into extremity.”

Nick Omerod and Declan Donnellan
Nick Omerod and Declan Donnellan

Jarry’s protagonist, the anarchic, petulant King Ubu, seizes control over Poland, Lithuania and everything in-between until an invading army threatens his petty dictatorship. On paper, Ubu is not an instantly recognisable character. However, the seemingly detached, expressionistic tale of despotism has a strangely familiar, domestic setting. Is there a little bit of Ubu Roi in all of us?

“Yes, or there’s no point in doing it really. I think that the worst sort of journalism makes you think that there’s nothing the matter with you but there are these other, awful people who do these terrible things. And that’s the reverse of a work of art. Could you murder Duncan like Lady Macbeth? Maybe not, but in theatre you are put in a situation where you have to feel some sympathy for these people, even if you don’t like it at all. You are placed in a position where you end up learning something about yourself and where you are taken to another world – a world that’s alive, alive rather than truthful. Ubu Roi has become a French classic and yes, it cuts the shit on our sophistication and makes you think, have I got some of that in me? I’m amazed by how we are more violent than we think we are. We do well to know that. There’s a pattern in the universe – control versus chaos. We are frightened of chaos, but control is very frightening too. I suspect that the maddeningly reasonable people, who never show their passion, are actually the angriest. It’s very important to be passionate and very important to be alive. It’s not so awful if you fly off the handle, as long as you know how to apologise, but we live in such icy control all the time, never daring to fart in case the whole world comes to an end. This is exactly what Ubu Roi is about, something that is inside us.”

The interview has transcended beyond any of my expectations. Is it even an interview anymore? I’m freefalling. Feeling the disarming effect of Donnellan’s eye-contact, I grip the table a little, just to make sure it’s still there. We laugh, we drink tea, but it’s time to get back to his least favourite subject, himself.

Donnellan has directed over thirty productions for Cheek by Jowl. He has directed for the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. He has received numerous awards, including three Olivier’s. His first film, Bel Ami, opened last year and he is the author of The Actor and the Target. His achievements are astonishing, but he pays very little attention to them, thinking of his successes simply as the by-product of producing good art. He wears it all so lightly, completely unaware of how influential and admired he is. At the outset of the interview, he seemed genuinely surprised that I had even heard of him: “Do you know what we do, in Cheek by Jowl?”

How could I not?

I ask (perhaps antagonistically), what remains for Cheek by Jowl to achieve? Do you have a goal? and beam at his response:

“Peter Brook said to me that the only goal anyone can have in life is to be present.”

Donnellan seems embarrassed: “That’s a name drop isn’t it?”

“But, to be truly present is the most astonishing thing. You occasionally get glimpses of it, like when you witness a car accident, for example, […] all your shit gets blown away in a moment like that and you become entirely attentive. You’re not concentrating anymore or trying. It’s the difference between being in love and loving, everything is pure. We are so well trained to be absent because civilisation demands that we are in control of our actions all the time but, when you are summoned into presence like that, all of our senses are heightened. You remember the room slowing down and you remember a sugar cube or the fag end of a cigarette. You’re so aware because you’re lost in attention.”

Can moments like that be emulated in a rehearsal room or experienced during a performance?, I ask.

“You can’t make life, but you can stop it being blocked. On the whole, in a rehearsal you are not trying to put life onto something but you are trying to stop life being taken away. It’s a removal of the block rather than an insertion of the impulse. You can’t teach it as a technique or a trick. The trick is not to have a trick, you build up your good judgement.”

Have you ever gotten it badly wrong?

“I make terrible mistakes but you learn to beat yourself up less about them.”

And it’s as simple as that. Donnellan has never compromised his art, never taken a short cut or strayed from what is important to him – an ethos commonly seen as ‘romantic’ or ‘unrealistic,’ but one I certainly share. He elaborates:

“It’s very important not to take yourself too seriously as an artist but it is very important to take the art that you are trying to make seriously which is different because it’s not about you, it’s about the thing you are trying to make better. You shouldn’t get in the way of your own light. We can often cast a big shadow over what we are trying to do. I try not to see myself as a theatre director but as someone who tries to put on plays as well as I can. It’s when you start to see yourself as the noun instead of the verb that these things detach and weird things start to happen – like with I’m an actor instead of I act.  We create great pieces of work by simply connecting with the human race.”

Evidently, neither Donnellan nor Ormerod are preoccupied with (or even aware of) their reputation so, really, I already know the answer to my final question. But still, wanting to hear it from the man himself, I ask, Do you ever feel the weight of your reputation? Does this business ever get to you? and we both laugh.

“No. Not remotely. I even enjoy a bit of praise, an award, a glass of champagne! Look, I think it’s very important to take your work seriously but if you don’t take joy in your work you need another job. Sometimes you don’t know why people are doing things because they seem to be suffering so much in their work. Sure, not a lot of people have a choice, but some people have a choice. I’m incredibly lucky doing what I do. I don’t dread Monday mornings. I’ve done it for 20 years now but I never feel like I’m entitled. That’s important, never to feel entitled.”

I couldn’t have agreed more and felt utterly privileged to have shared an hour with Donnellan, who unknowingly made my year when, upon departure he made a point of remembering my name and described me as ‘charming’ and ‘alive.’ We are all guilty of losing touch with our own fortune (myself included), but today I felt truly blessed.

– Emily Hardy

Cheek by Jowl’s Ubu Roi opens at the Barbican on April 10th. More info here.

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