Theatre Critic and Journalist

After us, a gentle king: Declan Donnellan

After us, a gentle king: Declan Donnellan

Last time British theatregoers encountered Père Ubu, he was holed up in The Hague, on trial for civil atrocities at the International Criminal Court in Simon Stephens’s play The Trial of Ubu. This week, Alfred Jarry’s monster is back in altogether more ordinary circumstances. Cheek By Jowl’s French-language production, which opens at the Barbican Centre on Wednesday, shows Ubu and his wife at home, hosting a dainty little dinner party for three friends.

Their home – all tasteful cream and glass – is the very picture of petite bourgeoisie living. The French equivalent of Radio 4 is babbling away from an iPod docking system. A statuesque burst of gentle pink roses makes a statement from the coffee table. Ultra-minimalist paintings hang on the wood-panelled walls. Everything’s just so – thanks to Père Ubu’s pernickety fussing. He uncorks the wine, swooshes it round his mouth and, satisfied, pops it down on the table, before addressing his wife in a whisper, seemingly concerned that even a sound wave might upset the fine-tuned balance.

So this is not, at least at first glance, the rampant gargoyle with a fondness for casual slaughter, unblinking betrayal and grinding lechery that Jarry created as a schoolboy. Nor is this, you’d think, the sort of soiree that starts with a sharing platter of shit-stained toilet brush. Or, even before that, an almighty cry of ‘Merdre!’ And yet…

Cheek By Jowl’s Ubu is nonetheless king of his own home. His 13 year-old son, skulking around the house while the party chatters on, is certainly a subject of his absolute rule – and it’s through his eyes, or rather his video camera – that the civilised evening erupts into the infantile, Oedipal fantasy that Jarry originally wrote.

Like so much of Cheek By Jowl’s work, Ubu Roi is a problem play. “It’s like a piece of primitive art or sculpture,” says artistic director Declan Donnellan, when we meet the following day at the La Théâtre des Gémeaux in Paris. “There’s a whole expressionist school around that, but Ubu’s still a one-off. It was a brutal primal scream that was funny.”

Jarry was 15 when he created Père Heb, a pot-bellied grotesque of his pompous physics teacher, Monsieur Hébert. Heb would later become Père Ubu, the protagonist at one of the most infamous first nights in theatrical history. Jarry’s breakthrough play – his second – sparked a riot at the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre on 8th December 1896 with its very first word: that infamous expletive, variously translated as ‘Pshit,’ ‘Shitsky’ and ‘Shitters’. Actually, says Donnellan, “He had it somewhat staged. He paid some friends and if anyone shouted against the play, they were to shout for it. If anyone shouted for it, they were to shout against.”

Nonetheless, the play, outlawed as a result, signalled a gigantic cultural shift; the lurch into modernism. The great romantic poet W. B. Yeats was in the audience that night and subsequently lamented in his diary, “After us the Savage God.” Donnellan feels some sympathy: “He walked in and saw something completely incomprehensible. When you see art you don’t understand, it makes you feel miserable and you often reject it out of rage.”

However, for all its subsequent influence – it’s widely held as the progenitor of absurdist theatre, for example – staging Ubu Roi isn’t simple. Its brash naivety is ever-present and it doesn’t so much critique as pulverise. That could explain why it’s so little known – at least amongst British audiences. In France, it remains revered.

That’s largely why Cheek By Jowl are presenting it in the original language. “We’ve no interest in being cultural imperialists. I’m much happier doing French plays with French actors and Russian plays with Russians. We’re open to the actors’ influences, so our Russian theatre looks like Russian theatre, our English like English theatre and our French like French.”

He’s reunited the French cast behind his 2009 Andromaque – another tricksy text – and the production’s physical style is distinctly Gallic: très bouffon. “From a British perspective, British actors are the best the world, but for the Russians, Russian actors are. I’d say they’re identical. The only difference is the political system, because we all exist in a context.” That impacts on group dynamics, career ambitions and working methods, “but as pieces of flesh and blood enacting other human situations, they’re absolutely identical.”

That concern with humanity is at the heart of the company’s work. Ever since Cheek By Jowl’s inception on the London Fringe in 1981, throughout its rise up the subsidized sector with Oliver awards at every turn, its two artistic directors, Donnellan and his designer and partner Nick Ormerod, have relished such problematic texts, because, as Donnellan says, “It’s more true to life.”

Look down the company’s production archive and you’ll find them all lined up: The Changeling, Troilus & Cressida, Measure for Measure, The Duchess of Malfi, Great Expectations, Peer Gynt – the list goes on and on. Awkward children one and all. Their last production, John Ford’s revenge tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, sought to emphasise, rather than solve, the split personality of its protagonist. Only a few of the plays listed sit in neatly cauterised, conventional genres and, even those that do – your Macbeths and your School for Scandals, say – suddenly grow slippery and evasive in Cheek By Jowl’s hands. Their 2004 Othello, with the knockout Nonso Anonzie in the title role, was both runaway thriller and, as Telegraph critic Charles Spencer put it, “the most touching and plausible account of the marriage between Othello and Desdemona I have ever seen: two loving, trusting innocents abroad in a wicked world.” Were anyone able to tackle Polonius’s famous ‘tragical-comical-historical-pastoral,’ it would be Donellan.

“At the heart of every comedy, there’s something sad. In every Feydeaux, there comes a moment where they’re all fucking each other, pushing lovers into wardrobes and shagging, and suddenly it flips for a moment and it’s so depressing: institutionalised adultery. Oedipus Rex has a joke a the heart of it. He didn’t know. There’s this terrible dark laughter beneath…That flip is part of life.”

Donnellan and Ormerod met as students at Cambridge in the mid-70s and, after Donnellan eventually dropped English, both read law and were subsequently called to the bar. Though the 60 year-old director “never took it all that seriously,” the analytical, fine-combing problem-solver within is still alive and well.

However, to dub Donnellan a concept-director, an auteur, would be wide of the mark. He never arrives at rehearsal with a fully-fledged solution and, indeed, Ormerod only delivers his designs at least two weeks into rehearsals. “You should do something as unclever as possible, but you need to provide a circumstance in which the play can take place,” Donnellan explains, “Sometimes you don’t need to do anything and sometimes you need to do quite a lot.”

Hence, with Ubu Roi, the adolescent’s-eye-view. Cheek By Jowl’s production has whacked a whopping great frame around Jarry’s play that allows it to exist. “We just wanted to think about where this desire to shit on things, to bring the lavatory brush in, comes from. It’s obviously about breaking rules […and] it makes much more sense if you feel like it’s being written by a schoolboy in front of you.” Donnellan’s right: the frame really gives a sense of the play’s inception, the fruits of a fixated 15 year-old brain. But it does more than that: it shows us a son’s Oedipal perspective of his father and, since that perspective must have some root in reality (even if only as a perspective), it shows the barbarian that lurks beneath the bourgeoise, the animal beneath the man.

“We all have it in us. We like to imagine we’ve grown up and weaned ourselves, but actually it ain’t like that. We don’t know what we’ve got in us until we’re tested. We don’t actually bloody know until we’re put under duress. What intrigues me is how paper-thin civilisation is.

“I really like civilisation and I really like rules. I like to walk down the street without being attacked. I like my salad in a plastic bag. I like the fact that people don’t attack or fight in the street. But the problem is that we do pay a price for civilisation and that price, I think, is madness. We still have these feelings and, in order to get on with each other, we have to repress them.”

This is Donnellan’s habitual mode: questing enough to interrogate base terms and to admit the double-edges in life. “As soon as you make a generalisation, the exact opposite is also true.” That’s probably why he’s an artist – and quite such a good one at that – rather than a lawyer. Simple – or, more accurately, convenient – answers just won’t do. Talk about the work and you stray into aesthetics and then into life itself. Mind you, that’s not to say that he’s over-serious. Our conversation is punctuated by his bursts of husky, infectious laughter.

“I think it’s very healthy to see extremes in art,” he says, returning momentarily to Ubu Roi: “It’s important to be reminded of our violent potential. I don’t think it makes us violent. All sorts of people have argued that it does, but I take another view, namely that we become really dangerous when we think we have no potential for violence…

“If you read the murder page in a newspaper, violence is always over there. I’m clean and you’re dirty. A good piece of art makes you ask questions about yourself. ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.’ Measure for Measure. ‘With what measure ye mete, you shall be measured again.’” He’s always doing that, slipping into Shakespeare and off elsewhere, but, in Donnellan’s mouth, such literary allusions don’t feel overtly pretentious. He’s too careful with the content, too intricate with his argument for that.

Donnellan points to the acid attack on his “good friend” Sergei Filin, artist director of the Bolshoi, where Cheek By Jowl will present its second ballet next year. He had been at a Stanislavski celebration with Filin immediately before the attack. “People ask why? Sergei’s incredibly handsome, he’s 40, he’s got three kids, he was a leading Bolshoi dancer before getting the top job. As Iago says, ‘He hath a daily beauty in his life that makes me ugly.”

Envy is, he says, the most repressed of all qualities: “We refuse to see envy, because we refuse to see our own. That’s why the world is so confusing. Watch a horror film; they usually start with a good-looking couple having sex in a parking lot. What do you think is going to happen? Horror films consist of beautiful people being butchered because they’re beautiful. It’s so fucking simple.”

That 13 year-old in Ubu, “he envies his parents. They’re these very sexy parents and he’s the ugly adolescent.” It’s telling that the party guests emerge as innocents and heroes in the boy’s imaginings, while the parents are the guttural grotesques. “It’s dirty. It’s the dirtiest thing. It not like jealousy, where you want something the other person’s got. With envy, you want something you can’t have, so, because you can’t have it, you set out to destroy it for others.”

“The problem is,” he continues, “that many of these things make us feel uncomfortable. Many of them: redemption and love make us uncomfortable as much as sex and violence. We all tend to remove these things.”

The director’s job, as Donnellan sees it, is to keep such uncomfortable truths in. “We’ve got one priority and that’s that our work should be as alive as possible…Where there’s no violence, there’s no life. Where there’s no sex, there’s no life. No love, no hope, no envy; no life. All of those things co-exist as part of life. You can’t remove one without diminishing all the rest.”

Photograph: Johan Persson

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