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Declan Donnellan - Measure For Measure

When Declan Donnellan was awarded the Golden Lion of Venice for lifetime achievement at this year's Venice Bienale at the end of July, it was for what was described as the veteran theatre director and co-founder of the Cheek by Jowl company's 'profound faith in the text' and 'for placing actors at the heart of his work and managing to get the very best out of them.'

Putting faith in theatrical text might not be unusual for a British director, but for Donnellan, who alongside designer and fellow founder and co-artistic director of Cheek by Jowl Nick Ormerod, it is vindication for a singular internationalist approach which has seen the company tour their work to almost four hundred cities in fifty countries. That the award came as Donnellan was preparing to bring his Russian language production of Measure for Measure to this year's Edinburgh International Festival for a short run this week makes the award even sweeter.

“Theatre has always struck me as being the actors art first and last,” said a delighted Donnellan in response to the announcement of the award, “so it has always felt natural to me to keep seeing and refreshing the work I do with them. Spectacle is an important part of theatre, but when theatre loses its human proportion it loses everything. The actors art is a complex idea though, as it is to do with the unmediated interconnection between the actors and the audience, the moment of shared spontaneity, the dynamising of the ensemble. It is the opposite of organising a semi-circle of supporting actors around a star. Deep respect for the actor is active and not congratulatory.” 

How this applies to Measure for Measure remains to be seen in a collaboration between Cheek by Jowl and the Moscow-based Pushkin Theatre that brings the most dramatically ambiguous of Shakespeare's comedies bang up to date in a one hundred minute version of a story steeped in matters of state control, privacy and surveillance culture.

“Measure for Measure has a resonance wherever we play it,” says Donnellan. “It's about many different things. It always strikes me as a very modern play. It’s a play about how governments try to control us, and how one of the ways that we are controlled, by not only governments, but by churches and other institutions that seek to control us, is shame. Parents can take the easier option and rely on shame to control their sons and daughters. It is also a warning against the cult of the 'pure and good'. What scares me about Angelo is not that he knows he is a hippocrite, it is that he genuinely believes thathe is 'pure and good'. He is not a liar to begin with, that is the problem. The doubting, unstable Duke is split, hecraves the calm of rightness and certainy and so becomes infatuated with the Angelo who makes it all seem so easy. But he discovers that 'pure, good, right and certain' make a hellish brew.”
While reviews of the show, first seen in 2014, have already picked up on the play's resonances in Putin's Russia, given events in other parts of the world, the play could equally apply to them.

“The extaordinary thing about Shakespeare is his universality,” Donnellan points out. “Wherever the play is performed it will throw up contemporary references. Of course, Measure for Measure is a political play about corruption, but also, importantly, our own capacity to be corrupt. It crosses that Shakespearean landscape where political, spiritual and psychological dangers criss-cross in a thrilling matrix.‎ Shakespeare never preaches to us. He never tells us how to live. There were plenty of moralising priests, politicians and pamphleteers in his time who did that. 

“Shakespeare is simply curious about who we are and what we do. Measure for Measure is about how we live within society, what we do in groups. We are social animals. It is about how we police each other, love each other, imprison each other, have sex with each other, how we look after each other, how we punish each other, how we need each other.”

Donnellan and Ormerod formed Cheek by Jowl in 1981, and have made Shakespeare the core of the company's work since its inception. After early outings on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the company was invited to present work abroad long before they ever appeared in London.

In this way, Cheek by Jowl remain both part of and outside the UK's theatrical establishment, with Donnellan's work outside the company including productions of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, at the Royal National Theatre and Martin Guerre on the west end. 
Donnellan and Cheek by Jowl's relationship with Russia was cemented in 1999 when the Chekhov International Theatre Festival commissioned the pair to form their own company of Russian actors in Moscow.

“We have been going to Russia since Soviet times,” says Donnellan, “and have worked there so often and have such close relationships that in truth we feel part Russian. However we do not try to catch a spirit. We just want to do our work un-self-consciously and in the present tense. Incidentally, Russians adore Shakespeare as well as their own national classics.

We naturally fell into step with Russian theatre when we were young because our priorities were very similar to many in Russia. Our aim is to share the living experience with an audience. Working with marvellous Russian actors is a huge privilege.”

Despite their extensive work in Russia, Measure for Measure marks Donnellan and Cheek by Jowl's first collaboration with the Moscow-based Pushkin Theatre, named in honour of Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. Given that Pushkin's 1833 narrative poem, Angelo,was inspired by Measure for Measure, and that Donnellan has directed Pushkin's epic, Boris Godunov, twice, first with the Moscow Art Theatre in 2000, then again with Cheek by Jowl in 2008, it is a connection that was clearly meant to be.
“Pushkin was hugely influenced by Shakespeare,” says Donnellan, who toured his Moscow Art Theatre production of Boris Godunov to several international cities, “so we always feel inspired by him, specifically by his apparent simplicity and self-effacing insight.”

Cheek by Jowl's internationalism remains crucial to the company, who present work in French, Russian and English. Later this year, Donnellan's production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale will open in New York before touring nine UK cities, including Glasgow and London, before closing in Moscow in June 2017 in a way that, in the year of the four hundredth anniversary of his death confirms Shakespeare's universality twenty-first century relevance in the same way Donnellan's production of Measure for Measure does.

“All his plays are about us now and human beings do not change,” Donnellan says. “Shakespeare is obsessed with human beings. He dissolves himself in characters who express extremely divergent philosophies, psychologies and politics. He is powerful because he is instinctively invisible. He is utterly obsessed with all the facets of human loss, and is equally obsessed with our dread of loss. 
“He knows that wisdom comes from holding two contradictory thoughts together at the same time without splitting off one of these two contradictions and locating it elsewhere. Purity is in itself corrupt because we cannot find a human pure without finding someone else filthy. ‎Even God needs the devil. But none of this ever lets us off the hook of trying to make the best possible choice at every moment. Just because good judgement is hard to achieve does not mean we can forget it. In these dangerous days we need good judgement as much as ever.”

Measure For Measure, Royal Lyceum Theatre, August 16-20, 8pm; August 20,
The Herald, August 16th 2016



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