Director Declan Donnellan says he sometimes feels more at home in Russia than in his native England. (He was born to Irish parents in 1953.) After studying law at Cambridge University and co-founding London’s Cheek by Jowl theater company with designer Nick Ormerod in 1981, Donnellan has directed all over the world, stockpiling accolades. Nonetheless, Russia is his muse. He established an early, warm relationship with the Maly Dramatic Theater of St. Petersburg, Russia, which led to work with the Russian Theater Confederation and to an assignment directing Romeo and Juliet for the Bolshoi Ballet. In 1991, Donnellan received an Olivier Award for achievement. Ten years later, he published a book on acting, The Actor and the Target — first published in Russian, then in English. Donnellan is known for directing and designing his productions around the actors. Designers observe rehearsals, which inspire costume, scenic and directorial ideas. This is an inversion of the British, American and Western European production process, where the scenery and the costumes are designed before the first rehearsal. Donnellan’s elemental production of Othello performs this weekend at UCLA. He spoke to the Weekly by phone from London.
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L.A. WEEKLY: So what is this attraction to Russia all about?
DECLAN DONNELLAN: When I was small, I always read about the theater, which meant I was reading about the Russians. So when I went there, it was very much like going home. The romance died pretty quickly, but the priorities my partner Nick and I had built up — things like the primacy of the ensemble, that the director’s first responsibility is to the actors’ art, that you design a play as you’re rehearsing it — these are ideas that seemed peculiar in the West but normal in Russia. Everything is so sensible there. The difference is the system. British actors don’t work for a long period of time, and then they’re thrown into four plays in rep. It’s like aversion therapy! In Britain, most of the regional theaters disappeared in the Thatcher years. Now there’s a lot of money to be made by a few younger stars, so it’s turned totally neurotic. In Moscow, there are still 60 theaters that are the size of the National. Which means that going to the theater in Moscow is like it was for our grandparents [in Britain].
A review in The Observer said that your 1998 production of Antigone in Ireland “eschewed topicality.” Do you have any use for topicality in the theater?
It absolutely has a place on the stage. I also love the idea that theater could possibly not be topical yet be very political at the same time. I think that only a bad work of art tells you that there’s nothing wrong with the way you see the world. A proper work of art, like van Gogh, says, “Do you really think a sunflower looks like that?” A proper work of art always seeks to change your perception, which is a political idea. Even a good still life is political. I was talking about this with [director] Peter Brook. Sometimes it’s useful in Shakespeare to make direct political connections. In Othello, a Muslim invasion is threatened, the only general who can save them is black, so there we are. Of course, it’s incredibly political. It’s not, you know — Othello is not Colin Powell. It works on so many different levels, it’s about men and women, it’s about God, it’s about the great themes of life digested effortlessly into a human story.
And do audiences apply topicality where you didn’t intend it?
When we did The Tempest in England, everybody said it was about Thatcher; in Romania, they said it was about [the wife of] Ceausescu.
The [Samuel] Beckett Estate is adamant about the primacy of the late playwright’s words in productions of his plays. With your focus on the actors, how would you approach a play by Beckett?
First we should be very, very scared of fundamentalists. Christ very clearly said, follow the spirit of the law and not the letter. And that goes through every spiritual system.
Anybody who is fundamentalist is not fundamental. It’s the spirit of the law that matters, not the letter of the law. That’s how it is with a play. You can, of course, follow the letter and completely deny the spirit. Why should a writer be the best judge of their own work, anyway? Great artists have the humility to know that they’re only a part of a process.
You’ve staged Romeo and Juliet with Russian dancers, The Winter’s Tale with Russian actors touring Britain with subtitles. How important is language to you, in the conveyance of meaning?
I’ve also directed twice in Finnish, where you have no idea where they are in the script. Romanian, you can follow; Finnish, you really can’t. What interests me is what is behind language, what is transcendent in language and what isn’t. The most important things do transcend language, but I can’t say what those things are. If the actors are genuinely connected, I’m with them. I’ve spent my life helping actors to make it seem that they’re inventing the words. It’s fantastic not to have to do that for once, in the ballet; God, it was fantastic not to have them open their mouths. And yet, Caliban says to his master, “You taught me language.” I find that line absolutely shattering; it leaves a lump in my throat every time. Language is so important and yet it isn’t, because it’s what’s behind the language that’s important. That’s the mystery.
OTHELLO | By WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE | Presented by CHEEK BY JOWL and UCLA LIVE! at UCLA, Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall Thursday-Friday, October 14-15, 8 p.m.; Sat., October 16, 2 & 8 p.m.; Sunday, October 17, 2 p.m. | (310) 835-2101