From Cheek by Jowl to the Wider World

One of Britain's most lauded theatre directors of the last decade and a half, Declan Donnellan has been curiously absent from the London stage of late. A few years back, the critical tide of goodwill appeared to turn against him, first with the ill-fated musical Martin Guerre, and then with two West End productions in 1999, Hay Fever (at the Savoy) and Antigone (Old Vic), that were mostly mauled by the critics.

These shows followed the suspension of the classical touring company, Cheek by Jowl, which Donnellan formed with his personal and professional partner, designer Nick Ormerod, in 1981. In its day, Cheek by Jowl became a regular fixture in London and around the country with such award-winning productions as an all-male As You Like It. So why give the company up? "Nick and I put it on hold for a little bit to do some other things we wanted to do but didn't have a chance to otherwise," Donnellan explains when we meet at a Hampstead coffee shop. "It's been very interesting moving onto various other things that our commitment to running a touring company couldn't allow, but we will come back to it."

Latterly, the pair's interests have mostly involved working abroad, including productions of Troilus and Cressida in Vienna, Le Cid at Avignon, The Winter's Tale in St Petersburg, the opera Falstaff at the Salzburg Festival, and Boris Godunov (pictured) in Moscow.

To Russia with Love

Russia, in particular, has provided Donnellan with an artistic haven for some time now. "Russia has become a kind of home to me. We've toured nearly everything there since 1994, and have many, many friends in both Moscow and St Petersburg."

Donnellan appreciates the differences between the dramatic scene there versus what he had become used to at home. "It's much more exuberant," he notes. "There are huge amounts of theatre in Moscow - there are about 60 theatres, and Russians go to the theatre dementedly. Moscow has beyond question the most lively theatrical atmosphere of any city in the world I've ever gone to."

It was Lev Dodin, a long-time friend, who, in 1999, first invited Donnellan and Ormerod to create a production from scratch for St Petersburg's Maly Theatre, whose work Donnellan was already familiar with. "I was able to choose a play on the basis of actors I knew, and I was able to cast it in the space of a morning, which is unheard of in the UK or America," he says. That production, The Winter's Tale, which was subsequently seen at London's Lyric Hammersmith, won Donnellan the Golden Mask Award (the Russian equivalent of the Olivier), marking the first time that this prize had gone to a foreign director.

Creating a Sense of Ensemble

Repeated subsequent invitations to work in Moscow eventually resulted in Boris Godunov. But unlike with the Maly, where the actors were part of a permanent ensemble, for the new production, Donnellan drew actors from various companies all over the city. "Muscovites had never seen these actors on the same stage together before. It was a huge privilege, but I was very nervous, too. One of the things I thought I liked most about Russian theatre was its sense of ensemble, which I was given for free by the Maly, but I worried that this would be like working in America, France or Britain, where I'd have to create it."

On the contrary, Donnellan discovered that, despite a poor knowledge of Russian and the consequent need to work through a translator, the cast were quick to grasp his intentions. "They also made a company from the first day, and there was never any sense of them being stars," he recalls. "They (Russians) have an incredible cultural ability to form a group."

That sense of ensemble, of course, is precisely one of the signatures of Donnellan's own theatrical work. He attributes the Russian knack for ensemble partly to the diminished mobility in the country's arts - stage actors are more devoted to honing their craft rather than rushing off to more lucrative television, cinema or advertising work. "In England, you're always second best to Coca Cola ads, Casualty or The Bill. In countries that don't speak English, on the other hand, they don't have that openness of frontiers with America, so there isn't that huge haemorrhaging of talent."

Language & Loyalty for Stage Craft

Like the Russians he admires, Donnellan, too, has remained always true to the theatre. There's no American Beauty, Billy Elliott, Notting Hill or other celluloid dalliance on his CV. Instead, he's just written a book on acting, inspired by his experience of working with Russian actors. It will be published initially in Russian, with English and French editions to follow. Commenting on the book, he says, "I'm very interested in teaching, in training, and in the process of acting. I'm very interested in theories about acting, about proper rigours and disciplines for training actors."

Donnellan's recent appointment to head up the Royal Shakespeare Academy's just-announced Academy in Stratford for newly graduated drama school talent will allow him ample opportunity to put his theories into practice in the training of up and coming classical stage stars. But even with the demands the Academy will make on his time, Donnellan intends to continue directing, both with the eventual resurrection of Cheek by Jowl and also with other projects.

Later this year, Donnellan will reunite with Tony Kushner - whose two-part epic, Angels in America, he directed at the National - to mount the premiere of Kushner's Home/Body, at off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop. And next year, he'll head to Sydney, "to do the medieval mystery plays, but in the original middle English, using actors from the English speaking world."

A linguistic challenge? Of course. But when Donnellan admits he's "very interested in language", he's not lying. He relishes the unique demands of presenting Boris Godunov in Russian, Falstaff in German and Le Cid in French, and seems to swap languages as easily as countries. "I spend so much of my life either having my work seen by foreign audiences, or me seeing foreign work, that I almost don't notice the language anymore," he says. "It's interesting to see what language can't do, though. One of the things that theatre is about is the boundaries of language, and what words can't do but theatre can."

Boris Godunov plays at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, west London, from 12 to 16 June 2001. The production, performed in Russian with English surtitles, will appear in July at the Avignon Festival in France.