BWW Interview: Director Declan Donnellan Talks THE WINTER'S TALE
Declan Donnellan is the co-Artistic Director of Cheek by Jowl. He's helmed over 30 productions for the company, touring to nearly 400 cities across six continents, and has also directed productions for the National Theatre, the RSC, the Avignon, and the Edinburgh and Salzburg Festivals, as well as opera, dance and film. Cheek by Jowl's The Winter's Tale is currently on the UK leg of a major international tour.
What attracted you to The Winter's Tale?
The Winter's Tale is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. It often divides its critics - many people are of the opinion that its lack of unity is its great undoing. Conversely, I think it is its unity that makes it such a brilliant story.
When it was first performed it would have been very much out of fashion with London theatre audiences of the time, who by now were becoming more accustomed to seeing city comedies that to a certain degree followed the three unities of time, place, and action.
What I love about The Winter's Tale is that it smashes these three standard unities and replaces it with unities of its own - abandonment, forgiveness, redemption. The differing plots in Bohemia and Sicilia make sense of each other even though they are completely and almost explicitly disunited by time, place and action. Yet it is hard to tell the whole story of The Winter's Tale without them. Everything comes together in unity with its final climax of redemption.
How does your collaboration with Nick Ormerod work, and where does your creative process begin?
Most of the time, the ideal situation is to know which actors we want to work with next and to consider a play around them. This is nearly always the case with our Russian and French companies. We've worked with Russian actors Sasha Feklistov, Andrei Kuzichev and Anna Khalilulina for many years now; similarly, Christophe Grégoire and Camille Cayol have been in our French company since we first came together to do Andromaque in 2007.
With the English companies it's harder - there's more of a rush with young actors in England to move into TV or film work - but we've been very lucky to welcome back some actors we have worked with before onto The Winter's Tale. Joy Richardson, who plays Paulina, Peter Moreton, who is Antigonus/Old Shepherd, Sam McArdle, who is the Young Shepherd, and Orlando James, who plays Leontes, has been with us for almost every English language production since Macbeth in 2009.
Nick and I don't design the play before we start rehearsing. Nick decides on the space while I am working with the actors. And we stay with the play throughout its life, so we only do one new play a year.
What gives Shakespeare such contemporary relevance?
Shakespeare will always be relevant, because people will always want to learn about people. Shakespeare teaches us about people - he teaches us about ourselves. It's not like Shakespeare's plays will suddenly become more or less relevant to audiences at a certain point in history.
Shakespeare understands that it is our carnality that makes us human, and this will always make us human, now or in another 400 or 4,000 years' time. It is our carnality - Shakespeare is full of love and loss, tenderness and violence, shit and spirit.
You perform Shakespeare in all different languages. Do some plays suit certain companies, and is there a particular reason you chose to stage this with a British one?
We like to choose plays to fit the actors we want to work with. Language isn't really a consideration - with Shakespeare especially, although it can be beautiful in many languages, it's not really our first consideration. We have staged The Winter's Tale before with a Russian company - it still plays in rep at the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg.
Although it's great to hear The Winter's Tale in the original English, that's definitely not the main difference between this and the Russian production. The very same text can suit different companies - but if there's life in the performance and the actors are alive, it will never end up being the same play.
You're doing a much larger UK tour this year - was that a conscious choice as it's a British company?
I don't suppose it was a conscious choice. It's obviously an immense privilege to be able to present work to audiences in the native language, but the play is not necessarily more relevant to British audiences than our other work.
Is there any venue that's particularly special to you?
We're delighted to be returning to Cambridge Arts Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath, Oxford Playhouse, Warwick Arts Theatre, Mercury Theatre Colchester, the Barbican and Bristol Old Vic - and it's also extremely exciting to making our debut at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow and Theatr Clwyd in Wales. In particular the ethos at the Citz was very formative for me and Nick 30 years ago, and the spirit of that company at that time inspired us.
You've directed across lots of different arts forms - is theatre your preferred medium?
Any form - whether ballet, opera or film - presents its own challenges. That is such a boring thing to say, I can't believe I just said it! More interesting is what these forms have in common: the most important thing they all share, which is about life. Life, life, life. For example, in a movie you try to bottle life. In ballet, it's not just the step - it's the living impulse which stimulates the step that is crucial.
Congratulations on winning the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement. Do you feel honours like this are important in recognising successes in the arts industry?
Yes. Hugely important. Often people say awards don't matter. But I don't agree. They give a fillip to your confidence and all artists are confidence dependent. Mind you, if you don't respect your own work no amount of awards will help.
Yes, it's been great to see actors like Adrian and Tom go on to develop - as it is with all of our actors, Russians as well. We do enjoy working with young actors. There is more opportunity to create a real ensemble when working with those who always want to learn - thought that isn't really limited to young actors, as there are many older actors who we enjoy working with and who seem to enjoy repeatedly working with us!
What other projects are you looking forward to working on in 2017?
As well as following The Winter's Tale on tour throughout this year, we're excited to be working again with our French company. It will be the first time we produce a Shakespeare play in French, and Pericles, Prince of Tyre will premiere in early 2018. It was also fantastic to get the chance to catch up with our Russian Measure for Measure company at the Sydney Festival earlier this January.
Photo credit: Alastair Muir, Johan Persson