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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 http://www.barbican.org.uk/theatre/event-detail.asp?ID=14022. To find out more about Cheek By Jowl, visit www.cheekbyjowl.com.

Image credit: Johan Persson