Interview: Cheek By Jowl

Declan Donnellan Declan Donnellan
Posted: Mon Feb 13 2012

On-stage incest shocked the Jacobeans and it still shocks us. Declan Donnellan speaks about 'Tis Pity Shes a Whore'

'Who are you?' asks Cheek By Jowl director Declan Donnellan. 'Where did you come from? Where are you going? What do you want? And what do you want to avoid?'

We're sitting in a café, but this is not a life-coaching session - though Donnellan's Hampstead neighbours would no doubt sign up in droves if it were. These are questions that the director asks his actors. And they are good questions for art or life: the last being particularly pertinent for Cheek By Jowl's thrilling new slasher version of John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore', in which 'mutilation', 'incest' and 'murder' are among the sticky ends that everyone fails to avoid.

Since Donnellan founded Cheek By Jowl three decades ago (with his partner in life and work, designer Nick Ormerod), it has become a byword for theatrical excellence. He sums up his part in the last 30 years briefly and modestly: 'I sit in a room and watch actors doing a scene. It's not very good - so I have to think of ways of doing it better.' Has he changed direction? 'Not at all. The world has got completely different, that's all.'

In conversation, Donnellan is a genial magpie, hopping unprompted from topic to esoteric topic, dropping crumbs of insight on the cultural significance of nostalgia or George Bataille's approach to sex and death along the way.

His artistic record is equally impressive. Donnellan has moved audiences in French, English and Russian, and discovered and developed new talent such as Daniel Craig and, more recently, Tom Hiddleston.

Cheek By Jowl would represent Britain on any list of the world's most influential theatre companies: it is not merely an institution; it is a kiss of life. Donnellan and Ormerod's sexy and unnerving new production of 'Tis Pity…' exemplifies their approacj to the classics, into which they have breathed new vitality.

As Donnellan explains during a learned aside on Genesis and the reasons that 'breath' rather than 'the word' ought to be the prime mover of the Universe, breath has always been central to his work with actors. 'What has changed over the years,' he says, 'are my priorities. I've de-prioritised true or false and boring or interesting and just gone after alive or dead. I find if I try to make theatre which is alive, then everything else falls into place.'

His revival of 'Tis Pity…' is gruesomely, wildly alive. Set on and around the bed of teenage Annabella, it's a flamboyant pop romp through this 400-year-old bloodfest, conducted with fantastic grace and rudeness by brilliant actress Lydia Wilson, who sets everyone dancing to her tune, then loses control of the beat. 'I'm moved by movement,' says Donnellan, who works across language and sometimes without it, as in his upcoming ballet commission from Moscow's Bolshoi.

Jacobean tragedies are blood-spattered shockers that speak loudly to a modern audience because of their violent sense of fun and because of their perverse nostalgia for a lost golden era: two reasons why they're frequently revived. ('The Revenger's Tragedy', which had two major 2008 revivals in London and Manchester, is a sort of psycho's 'Hamlet'; while 'Tis Pity…', with its bawdy nurse and message-bearing priest, is more like an incestuous 'Romeo and Juliet').

'The incest in “Tis Pity…”,' argues Donnellan, is 'essentially nostalgic and conservative. Sex is supposed to drive you out of the family, not into it.' Cheek By Jowl's production plays out on the bed and in the bathroom - the former an erotic space, the latter a site of violence. 'You're sick in it,' explains Donnellan. 'You're naked. You shit. You're vulnerable. And it's the only place in the house with a lock.'

Donnellan's slick revival glories in gory contemporary culture but also sticks the knife into it. 'We're becoming more taboo-ridden than we were,' he argues. 'I read a survey about sex on TV: most people were fine with it as long as the participants were good looking and hairless. Something erotic has been removed from life because it's been virtualised.'

Although he is a passionate defender of art for art's sake, he also relishes theatre as a place to exorcise demons. 'If you want to kill your kids,' he advises, 'it's better to see “Medea” than to poison their cornflakes.'

When I ask him if 'Tis Pity…', with its ill-fated teenage lovers, is his revenge on the young and good looking, he roars with laughter. 'Yes! Death is often a punishment for sex! If you see a good-looking couple having sex at the beginning of a horror movie, you don't think, This is going to go well, do you? As a kid you think you identify with the couple. Later you realise it's more complex. We are all also the monster.'