Interview feature: Declan Donnellan on The Winter’s Tale

A Tortured Heart In Winter

Acclaimed theatre director Declan Donnellan talks to Mark Brown about his new production, The Winter’s Tale, and about his debt to Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.

The company of The Winter’s Tale. Photo: Johan Persson

When I speak with Declan Donnellan, internationally acclaimed theatre director and co-founder of the famous company Cheek By Jowl, he is in Chicago. Audiences and critics in the Windy City are responding well, he tells me, to his latest production, a staging of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.

In fact, the show (which is performed in English and makes its UK premiere at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre later this month) has been receiving enthusiastic plaudits throughout an international tour that has taken in venues in France, Spain, Italy and Luxembourg. When it visited Madrid, in February of last year, the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a glowing review for the Spanish newspaper El Pais.

“It is some time since I have seen a play that has kept me almost in a trance for the nearly three hours that it lasted”, wrote the Peruvian author. Not even Cheek By Jowl’s Russian-language staging of the Bard’s play Measure For Measure, he continued, “gave me that sensation of beauty and originality, of craftsmanship and absolute perfection.”

For Scottish audiences, this comment should be a source of excitement. Donnellan’s Measure For Measure was the deserved toast of the Edinburgh International Festival’s 2016 theatre programme. If, as Vargas Llosa believes, his Winter’s Tale exceeds it, we are in for a real treat.

The Winter’s Tale is known as one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays”. It is so called on account of its uneasy combination of regal tragedy and pastoral comedy; the former caused by King Leontes’s false accusation of an affair between his pregnant wife, Hermione, and his blue-blooded friend, Polixenes.

How, I wonder, does Donnellan approach the problem? “It’s really a play about abandonment”, he says. “Leontes is mad, but what is the source of his madness?

“He convinces himself that Hermione is having sex with Polixenes, and takes cruel revenge, trying to kill Polixenes, having the baby, his own child, abandoned. I think the fact that he chooses abandonment is significant.

“Leontes, we can infer, suffers from a terror of abandonment so overwhelming that he cannot see it. Like the monster standing behind you, so tall that you can’t see him.”

This psychoanalytic approach is interesting. This is Leontes, not as a tragic, Ancient monarch, but as a modern man, with an unconscious, Freudian fear.

For Donnellan, the road into the mind of a man of power, such as Leontes, is through our common humanity. The King can be compared, he says, with the guy in the pub who kicks off when it’s closing time.

A barman in his younger years, Donnellan says he has observed the kind of man who, “anaesthetised” against his feelings of loneliness and abandonment, isn’t even aware of why he suddenly flies into a rage. “Instead [of articulating his feelings] he’ll pick a fight”, comments the director.

“He may turn round to the next guy and yell, ‘what are you looking at?!’ Imagine that sort of apparently random rage coming from… someone with power. Imagine it in a king.”

Vargas Llosa was impressed by the modernity of Donnellan’s production. It is, he wrote, “absolutely a reflection of our time, our conflicts, a work which denounces the absurdity and the wickedness [of]… our politicians.”

Donnellan agrees that his approach to the play, and to theatre more generally, has political implications. Which is not to say that he has ever subscribed to the polemical style of those who look at a stage and see a soapbox.

In the 1980s, he remembers, there was a lot “Political theatre” (with an emphatically capital P) going on in the UK in response to Thatcherism. “Everyone sitting in the theatre was a convert”,  he remembers. “It felt slightly creepy.”

Instead of such redundant certainties, Donnellan’s theatre has always been one of possibilities and implications, be they political, moral, psychological or erotic. It’s a style of theatre that will be familiar to theatregoers of a certain vintage who remember the golden age at the Citizens Theatre (1969-2003) under the great directorial triumvirate of Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald.

Indeed, it’s a style that has, in many regards, been revived at the Citz in recent years by the Glasgow theatre’s current artistic director Dominic Hill.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Cheek By Jowl’s latest production should make its British premiere at the Gorbals playhouse. Not least because of the importance of the Citizens to both Donnellan and, joint artistic director and co-founder of Cheek By Jowl, Nick Ormerod.

“The Citizens under Giles, Philip and Robert had a great influence on Nick and I”, says Donnellan. “With its bravura, its internationalism, its sense of the epic gesture, its loathing of twee-ness,  I think the Citz was actually the most Scottish theatre.

“That was because it brought Scotland into the world and the world into Scotland. Glasgow wasn’t interested in building some kind of inward looking national identity, it was looking outwards, it wanted to be the best theatre in the world.”

If Cheek By Jowl, which was established in 1981, owes a debt to the extraordinary aesthetic innovations of the Citz in the 1970s, there’s also much to be said, Donnellan notes, for “the apparently little things.

“Giles inspired us humanly, he was always there, keeping a warm presence, in the foyer, human, approachable. He has been a great inspiration to us. ”

The Winter’s Tale is at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, January 24-28.

This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 8, 2017

© Mark Brown


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