Edinburgh International Festival preview: Declan Donnellan on Life is a Dream
In the world of British theatre, there’s hardly a biography more gilded with high achievement than that of Declan Donnellan, the joint artistic director of Cheek By Jowl Theatre Company. With his lifelong partner and collaborator, the designer Nick Ormerod, he launched the company 42 years ago, with a London production of ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, and a 1981 Edinburgh Fringe version of William Wycherley’s The Country Wife so successful that it won the company their first invitation to work outside the UK, at the Almagro Festival in Spain.
Even that successful debut, though – the kind of which every young Fringe company dreams – could hardly have prepared Donnellan and Ormerod for the glittering career that was to follow, including not only co-productions with the UK’s leading theatre companies – the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, among others – but work with leading festivals and companies across Europe. Donellan has won four Olivier Awards in London, as well as major awards in Paris, New York and Moscow; and in 2016, he was awarded the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Biennale for lifetime achievement in theatre.
Yet now, looking back from the relatively grand age of 69, Donnellan is inclined to frame his life in theatre as the story of a generation, as much as a story of personal achievement. “When you take the long view,” says Donnellan, “you begin to realise how much you are a child of your time. Nick and I met at Cambridge in the year when Britain joined the EU, and were invited to perform in Spain before we had even taken The Country Wife to London; so right from the start, it just seemed we were part of that wider European theatre scene.
“I always knew, even then, that we mustn’t underestimate the darker forces of nationalism; and you can see the resurgence of those now, across Europe and in the UK, with Brexit. But being cosmopolitan, and having that international life, has meant everything to me; and even now, I tell young directors always to try to do some work outside the UK, because they will learn so much about theatre, and about British theatre culture, by seeing it from a different angle.”
It therefore makes perfect sense that Donnellan’s 2022 production of Pedro Calderon’s great 1635 drama Life Is A Dream – playing at the Lyceum in the final week of the Festival – features a creative marriage between Cheek By Jowl and one of Spain’s great theatre companies, the Compania Nacional de Teatro Clasico of Madrid. Throughout its history, Cheek By Jowl has specialised in the classical European repertoire of the 16th and 17th centuries, ranging from Shakespeare and his contemporaries, through the Spanish Golden Age, to the French tragedies of Racine and Corneille; and Donnellan says that has everything to do with the fact that drama of this period was most often written in verse.
“The thing about verse,” says Donnellan, “is that it just immediately lifts you away from the idea of realism or naturalism, and into a different space, of imagination and poetry and breath. When Nick and I launched Cheek By Jowl, it was always to do with creating our own space, where we could make the work we wanted to do.
“And for us, that space has never been about naturalism, which always involves accepting someone else’s rules about what “reality” looks like. When we first start work on a show, we don’t really discuss the text at all. What we prefer is to take the actors off somewhere for a few days, with the text, and just see what begins to happen. Then, on the basis of that, Nick will begin to work out some ideas about the kind of space we need; and then we can start to rehearse.
“Working across different languages, I feel that the detailed meaning of the words can become a great trap, and something about which audiences are often terribly anxious. For me, though, that’s not the essence of theatre at all. The point is to be there, with the living actors, undergoing the same emotions, breathing with them; and maybe only later to ask what it ‘meant’ to you, or to others.”
Of all Spanish Golden Age dramas, Life Is A Dream is perhaps the one best known to Edinburgh audiences, not least through Jo Clifford’s brilliant 1989 version, recently revived at the Lyceum; and its remarkable tale of a young prince locked in a tower since babyhood, until his sudden release, unleashes themes to do with power and performance, dreams and parallel realities, that are both intensely theatrical, and strangely contemporary.
“This play is the Hamlet of Spain, with that sort of status in Spanish culture,” says Donnellan, “and I think the way it questions the very nature of existence even echoes some of the concepts of recent quantum physics – the idea of the universe as entirely relational, and based on no absolute truths at all. I was quite nervous about working on it; but the Madrid actors were fantastic, with a terrific ensemble feeling amongst them, and I think Edinburgh will love their performances.”
As for the Edinburgh Festival itself, Donnellan is delighted, these days, to be bringing major Edinburgh International Festival shows to the city where he once arrived as a very young Fringe director. “For us, it all began here in Edinburgh,” says Donnellan, “sticking up our posters around the Bedlam Theatre, and jostling for attention as everyone does on the Fringe.
“So I’m delighted that the EIF is now celebrating its 76th birthday; and I think it does fantastically well in sustaining its position as a leading world festival – it certainly involves a far bigger gathering of major international companies than most of the festivals we visit. The Fringe is amazing, of course, and helps make the Festival the huge event it is. But without the EIF at the heart of it, none of the rest would exist; so I say more power to it, as it heads on into the future.”
Life Is A Dream, Lyceum Theatre, 23-27 August