Tag Archives: Declan Donnellan

“Measure for Measure” from Cheek by Jowl

Such is Cheek by Jowl’s international reputation that tickets for its infrequent London appearances can be tricky to obtain. I remember trying and failing to see this show back in 1994, so generously offering it online during lockdown is especially welcome. Even better, the production lives up to expectations – this is the best Measure for Measure I’ve seen.

There are no gauche touches to make the piece contemporary. Any claims for the universality of Shakespeare benefit as a result. Director Declan Donnellan sets the story of Duke Vincentio, who dons a disguise to observe the goings on in Vienna, in a setting full of police and prisoners making the most of the play’s debates over justice, law, states and rulers.

This violent, often frightening, city can be recognised as now but could be anytime and anywhere. A sense of surveillance (without the trace of a CCTV camera) is ingrained in every curious or scared look. Obeying and resisting power struggles in each scene. Donnellan even manages the play’s considerable religious content expertly – moments of prayer become potent.

Performed in Russian, it has to be said that some of the surtitles come across as a little odd. And the recording isn’t of the highest standard. While Nick Ormerod’s design of red cubes on a bare stage still looks great, the way the cast moves around as a group – ushering in scenes, creating the sense of both chorus and mob – is clearly lost. It does makes you want to see the real thing even more.

The acting is magnificent. Donnellan utilises his ensemble to such perfection that every performance is of consequence. Without disrespect to other productions, I can’t remember being struck by the character of Barnardine before – here, Igor Teplov’s performance makes it a memorable role. The seedy side of city life is conveyed with Alexander Feklistov’s grubby Lucio and Alexey Rakhmanov’s menacing Pompey.

The siblings faced with the play’s famous dilemma are made compelling and very human heroes. As Claudio, Petr Rykov brings a passion to the affair that has landed him in jail (aided by excellent work from Anastasia Lebedeva) along with an animality that invigorates the stage. As for Anna Vardevanian’s Isabella, trying to free her brother – her performance is stupendous: full of defiance, intelligence and also horror, she makes the role intensely moving. Andrei Kuzichev plays their adversary Angelo, the merciless hypocrite left in charge, with a creepy edge – he sniffs Isabella’s chair when she leaves – that becomes all the more frightening for the character’s intelligence.

All this is great, but Donnellan’s masterstroke is to bring to the fore a role often seen as only a catalyst: this is the Duke’s Measure for Measure. Taking the role, Alexander Arsentyev’s Vincentio is nervous at first – could his problem really be life in the public eye? The Duke makes for a pretty useless disguised Friar and the show gets some humour out of this. Arsentyev seems barely off stage. The focus is his journey as a politician, and the production’s emphasis on the public during the final scene proves electric. The conclusion has a transformative power that transcends the resolution of plot. That other characters become something like pawns in a sick game, how they will recover from Vincenzio’s experiment rendered an open question that adds a troubling edge to what we’re been watching. Conversations with Shakespeare that are this confrontational, let alone performed with such excellence, are seldom seen – check this one out while you can.


Photo by Johan Persson

“Shakespeare in Love” at the Noël Coward Theatre

Films brought to the stage are often maligned, but Shakespeare in Love, which opened this week at the Noël Coward Theatre, should make all playgoers happy. Theatre power couple Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, world renowned for their Cheek by Jowl Company, make it a hot ticket. Skillfully adapted by Lee Hall, from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s Oscar winning 1998 hit, this is a clever crowd pleaser it’s easy to recommend.

Hall wisely retains much of the original script. All the jokes created by a modern eye on the imagined creation of Romeo and Juliet are as funny as ever. The romance is preserved and the story’s second love affair – with the theatre – is expanded. The ensemble engender an intimate complicity as they remain on stage to interact with the young playwright Will during his hopeless love affair with the aristocratic Viola De Lesseps.

With the movie in our minds the performers have a lot of live up to – it was a film with no shortage of stars. The cast acquit themselves well, with David Oakes benefiting most from a beefed up role as Christopher Marlowe. Director Donnellan uses the many small roles to focus attention on the lovers – showing their differences in rank and contrasting overblown acting with their sincerity as the romance mirrors and molds that of the fictional Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare In Love 6 - Company with Tom Bateman as Will. Photo by Johan Persson ∏Disney
Tom Bateman

In the star roles Tom Bateman and Lucy Briggs-Owen give exciting performances. Bateman has the looks for a leading man and gives Will a Byronic feel that he builds well. Briggs-Owen is full of ambition, keen to get the laughs and conveying a spirit that makes you fall in love with her character. Viola is the star and her desire to become an actor is the motivation that is inspirational.

Donnellan marshals Shakespeare in Love with efficiency and Ormerod’s set is impressive. Could the play have been more adventurous? Probably. The finest addition is the music from Paddy Cunneen that has a boldly crafted authentic feel. But the production sensibly decides to please those who loved the film and here it’s an unqualified success. There’s even a dog that almost steals the show – sure proof those in charge know what people want: love, and a bit with a dog.

Until 25 October 2014


Photos by Johan Persson

Written 23 July 2014 for The London Magazine

“‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore” at the Barbican

The Cheek By Jowl theatre company can’t come to London often enough for my liking – its visits are anticipated events. Touring to the Barbican for the last few years, this month it stages Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi and revives its 2011 production of John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore. The latter is a vivid adaptation of the bloody incest tragedy, filled with modern choreography and startling music. And it revels in the horror and gore.

Ford doesn’t hold back. Nor does director Declan Donnellan, who towers over the show, or designer Nick Ormerod, who has created eye-popping imagery. Set in the teenage Annabella’s bedroom, with its vampire posters and red décor (she even drinks cranberry juice), this is the scene of her coupling with her brother Giovanni, a nuptial night from hell with her husband Soranzo and the many schemes that fill the play. The bed is always centre-stage: cavorted on, plotted on, the locale for sex and violence. With red sheets, of course.

Donnellan’s committed cast gives exhaustive performances. Orlando James and Eve Ponsonby are the siblings and their delivery of the text, combined with their physicality, is impressive. Ponsonby does particularly well when it comes to her character’s eventual remorse and fear, while James excels as Giovanni moves from “unsteady youth” to avenging madman. Maximelien Seweryn’s Soranzo and his servant, Will Alexander’s Vasques, make a virile team. Smaller female roles, increased in importance, make the big difference in this particular production. Annabella’s servant, played by Nicola Sanderson, becomes a key role as a foil to the tragedy. Ruth Everett is superb as Soranzo’s spurned lover, an appropriately overblown performance that includes a masterclass in moans.

With Cheek By Jowl on board, the play becomes strangely sexy. Tableaux that summarise Ford’s world view, and make a virtue of unsubtlety, make for startling theatre. The production is frank and brutal. It creates a real sense of the danger surrounding lust. There are moments of excess (I am not sure a stripper was called for) but this is another fine production from master theatremakers. With a clear, boldly abbreviated text, it’s precisely directed and full of memorable imagery.

Until 26 April 2014


Written 13 April 2014 for The London Magazine