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“All the art I do is about life”: An interview with Declan Donellan

Posted on 09 April 2013 by Billy Barrett


Cheek by Jowl takes its name from a quotation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “Follow?” Demetrius roars to Lysander. “Nay, I’ll go with thee, cheek by jowl”. It’s a phrase that artistic directors Declan Donellan and Nick Ormerod chose to reflect the “intimacy between actors, the audience and the text” that they strive to sustain in their work. Since founding the company in 1981, director Donellan and designer Ormerod have taken audiences with them through many of Shakespeare’s plays, as well as the works of European dramatists including Chekhov and – less often – new writing. In 1999, they formed a sister company of Russian actors and have more recently begun working with a French ensemble. Their latest French-language production, Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, comes to the Barbican this week, where the company is an Artistic Associate. Currently staging work in three different languages and touring globally with its three companies, Cheek by Jowl remains, as Donellan puts it, “passionately devoted to sharing an intimate experience with the audience” on an international scale.

When I speak to Donellan, though, it’s not so close and personal – in fact, he’s on the phone from his hotel room in Paris between rehearsals for Ubu – but this does little to mute the emphatic force of his always carefully considered words, and the experience is certainly an intense one. I get short thrift after opening inanely with “how are rehearsals going?” and pretty soon we’re discussing how the production connects with Cheek by Jowl’s previous work and with Donellan’s taste for landmarks in European theatre. Ubu Roi, although “a continuation of the work with the same French actors” from the recently formed company, is “the complete opposite” of their first production, Racine’s Andromache. It’s a play that surreally satirises self-gratification and the greed for power, reworking Shakespearean tropes to chronicle a despotic ruler’s rise with unrestrained vulgarity and scatological comedy.

Famously, riots broke out in the theatre at Ubu Roi’s 1896 premier in Paris after only the first line was uttered: “Merdre” – a pun on the French words for “murder” and “shit”.  When I bring this up, asking whether the play still has the power to shock, Donellan is quick to clarify that “I’m not interested in shocking the audience,” viewing such an approach as “an easy way of having an intimate shared experience”, and a “cheap” motive. However, he later reflects, “people think it’s so difficult to shock these days because people are ‘un-shockable’, but I don’t think that’s true at all. I think we’re becoming much more narrow-minded in many respects. The world is becoming less tolerant, and I’m not just talking about the rise of fundamentalism, I’m talking about actual middle-class values such as you and I have. I think there are more taboos, not less, but they’re just less visible and more difficult to put your finger on”.

Donellan’s staging of the play illustrates pretty well what he’s getting at here: by transposing Jarry’s absurdist narrative to a dinner party in a chichi French apartment, the play is framed as an adolescent fantasy in a bourgeois world. Ultimately, though, his intentions are never clear-cut, mainly because to have specific intentions – he believes – is to undermine the complexity of the theatrical experience: “you don’t think, ‘oh I’m going to move the audience here’ or ‘I’m going to frighten the audience here, I’m going to blah the audience here’. Audiences are much more independent than that… everyone is a participant in the act”.

As for what Ubu says about us today, Donellan simply states: “all the plays I do, I do because they’re about universal human nature, and fortunately – or unfortunately – human nature doesn’t change”. Whilst many of the plays he’s directed are part of what we might call the canon, Donellan has little time for the idea that he’s breathing new life into the classics – in fact, he says, “you’ve made me feel sick by using those words”. Oh dear. “As soon as you use the word classic, it makes my heart sink, because it’s so easy to forget that these plays are well-written. I don’t do them because they’re classics; I do them because they’re good.” What draws him to a play, then, is not its literary status but rather its simple ability to convey “what’s so alive about the human condition”. The example he quotes is in Three Sisters (which he directed in an acclaimed production in 2005) when Masha tells the audience she’s going to have an affair simply by taking off her hat and saying, “I think I’ll stay to lunch”.

It’s this love of “brilliant” writing that makes working with new playwrights a rarity: “I do read a lot of new scripts, but my problem is I’m spoilt – I’ve been fed a stream of wonderful words all my life, by Pushkin and by Chekhov and by Shakespeare.” On the few occasions that he has taken on a new play. though, it has tended to become fairly, er, canonical itself. “And then when I get a new writer”, as he says, “I get Tony Kushner” – Donellan directed the UK premiers of both parts of Angels in America for the National Theatre.

Donellan’s directorial approach to these texts, it seems, is as pure and direct as his appreciation: when I ask about the differences between working with the three different companies, he laughs off the notion that his methods might ever be consistent. “I’m rather an anti-methodology person. Every piece of work I do in a different way; I’m very much not a man that goes in with a theory and tries to make work of art to prove it.” Instead, his attitude is refreshingly pragmatic: “I have actors, I have a play and I have a theatre that expects to see something, and I put them together in the best way I can – that’s genuinely how I do my work.” This all comes back, of course, to what he sees as a fundamental principle of theatre: “It’s very important to me, because all the art I do is about life, it’s not about theory. All I hope and pray is that the work that I do is not particularly adhering to any pre-formulated idea of how things should be, but that it’s alive.”

Ubu Roi is at the Barbican 10- 20 April. For tickets and more information, visit To find out more about Cheek By Jowl, visit

Image credit: Johan Persson


Billy Barrett

Billy Barrett

Billy currently studies English and Theatre at Warwick University. Between reviewing and reading for his course, Billy writes, directs and acts in theatre. He tries to see everything in London, Warwick and beyond!

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All the world’s a stage: LIFT

Posted on 03 July 2012 by Ellen Carr

There’s no doubt that London is a multicultural city. Walking its network of interconnected streets you’re hit with a myriad of scents, the essence of culinary pickings from around the globe mingling to create the substance of this great capital. The London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT) celebrates this multiculturalism by opening up London to world wide theatrical experiences; nations, cultures and theatre-making practices collide in a festival that proves the slipperiness of the term ‘border’ and probes at our cultural heritage.

LIFT presents a programme of work from New York, Belarus, Iran, Romania, Tunisia, Germany, Australia, the UK… the list goes on. It offers work that pushes boundaries both geographically and theatrically, and that celebrates the power of theatre and the joys of being culturally curious. Whilst bringing the world to London, however, it is also a festival that stands out – in the words of Artistic Director Mark Ball – for being about “London for Londoners”.

There are three factors that influence programming decisions and one of these is including work that is site specific, using London as a stage in such a way as to make the city be seen differently. Requardt & Rosenberg’s spectacular Motor Show takes place in “an acre of forgotten land” by the North Greenwich landmark that is the O2 Arena. Iran based Hamid Pourazari’s Unfinished Dream uses a car park in Croydon as its stage, and Look Left Look Right use the hidden alleyways of Camden for their one-on-one performance of You Once Said Yes. In just these three examples the diversity of the festival is highly evident; a motoring/dance theatre spectacular, a promenade performance telling the stories of local refugees and an intimate adventure through the streets of Camden.

Taking routes trodden everyday, locations seen routinely and transforming the way they are seen – and even used – takes audience members out of themselves and their habitual ways of seeing. London is shown in a new light, forcing audiences to consider the makeup of their home city and this notion is played with in extremes in Germany’s Rimini Protokoll’s 100% London. Cast from 100 everyday Londoners selected based on specific criteria drawn from demographic data the production pits views from ‘experts in daily life’ against this 1% of London’s population. The result is a questioning of official reality and an exploration of the human truth behind this city.

Truth plays a vital role in a lot of the work on offer at LIFT, particularly that selected based on the factor of being from parts of the world where changes are happening. Belarus Free Theatre are an excellent example coming from a place where “theatre is vital to their existence”, not because it’s celebrated and enjoyed but because it is an absolutely necessary means through which to vocalise certain truths. Belarus Free Theatre are banned in their own country, they suffer death threats, perform in secret and still carry on because they believe – as does Ball – that “theatre can be a catalyst to inform and change public opinion”.

In such work can be seen a stronger political side to LIFT, bringing work from countries where the theatre is imbued with “bite and urgency” and reminding us that we often “forget our privileged position”. Such urgent work as Belarus Free Theatre’s Minsk 2011 with such vital messages to utter can lead to a questioning of the work made here in our privileged country. But LIFT also presents work from emerging, and leading, UK based experimental theatre-makers such as Forced Entertainment and dreamthinkspeak. In programming the two together Ball aims to show there are “intrinsic links” between breaking theatrical and geographical boundaries.

Interestingly LIFT features a number of Shakespearian productions, alongside dreamthinkspeak’s The Rest is Silence there’s an Iraqi Romeo and Juliet and a Tunisian take on Macbeth entitled Macbeth: Leila and Ben. Discussing this latter production and such use of Shakespeare Ball simple remarks how “the man was a genius”; his work is universal and it does relate to contemporary life and problems. Macbeth: Leila and Ben presents a “direct comparison between Macbeth and the Arabic dictator”, it creatively blends Shakespeare with verbatim interviews using this pinnacle of British theatre to understand the unstable world around them. Using Shakespeare in this way not only gives these individuals a theatrical voice through which to speak, but revitalises traditional British theatre.

In complete contrast to this is Romanian documentary piece 20/20 telling a “historically specific story which barely got any attention” at the time of it happening. The story is that of the ethnic conflict on the Hungary-Romania border in the 1990s. Ball feels it is relevant now due to the enormous changes currently happening in Europe, and the way this story tells us how it “doesn’t take much for things to go horribly wrong”.

LIFT may present a diverse range of productions but all of them have the common element of commenting upon- altering – the world in which we live. Be that our own personal worlds or a larger society. The programme embraces spectacle, theatre as a means for political expression and theatre as storytelling to be enjoyed. Definitions of theatre’s purpose that many of us struggle to choose between, but perhaps that is within the remit of festival to celebrate. When asked what feeling he wants the festival to exude, what experience he wants its audiences to have Ball proclaims the “wild energy” driving this “intense four week period where you can really immerse yourself in the experiences of people from around the world”. He cites intense excitement, a feeling of everything being magnified and of fun.

Presenting theatre in a myriad of forms LIFT demonstrates the immense possibility of theatre and a new truth behind “all the world’s a stage”. It’s a festival one can only see growing and taking over the city of London.

The festival continues until 15th July. For more information and details about shows, visit

Image credit: Gatz by Elevator Repair Service

Ellen Carr

Ellen Carr

Ellen is Artistic Director of Witness Theatre, a company she established after graduating from the University of Sussex in 2011. Ellen writes, directs and produces for Witness Theatre and spends the rest of her time doing more writing. She is currently writing her own blog witnesstoexperience daily, contributes regular features to One Stop Arts and can also be found writing the occasional screenplay.

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