In 1981 Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod founded Cheek by Jowl, a company that has since grown into one of the most well-known names in theatre production, a feat achieved through an unwavering commitment to staging innovative productions in a variety of languages all over the world. The pair’s successes on the stage were recognised earlier this year when both Donnellan and Ormerod received OBEs in the Queen’s Birthday Honours, a welcome sight for any lovers of the arts.

Most recently in the UK, Cheek by Jowl staged their new production of The Winter’s Tale (about which you can read culturised’s thoughts here). As well as touring throughout Europe, the show was made available worldwide through an internet live stream, and this stands as just one indication of the ways in which Cheek by Jowl have sought to be inventive not only in the way they stage their plays, but also in reaching out to new audiences. Their work shows an evident passion for engaging more people in theatre and bringing more people together – to get them cheek by jowl – in order to experience and enjoy live stage productions.

Outside of the theatre, Donnellan has also turned his hand to writing. His The Actor and the Target, an influential guide for actors, was first published in Russian in 2001, and then translated into English in 2002 and has since appeared in several revised editions. This particular interest in all aspects of the stage: the design, the acting, and the audience, has certainly been a contributing factor in making Cheek by Jowl the respected name it is today and it is something that is evident every time one sits down to see one of their productions. We at culturised were lucky enough to be spared some time to find out more from Donnellan about his thoughts on (among other things) theatre’s role in modern society, his experience founding and growing Cheek by Jowl with Ormerod (who is also his life partner), and what to expect from their upcoming performance of Shakespeare in French: Périclès, Prince de Tyr.

 What do you think is the function of theatre?

It’s really important to know that the theatre that we, as Cheek by Jowl, like – the theatre that’s important to us – is about life, it’s about how we connect to each other. The spirituality of the theatre is about us connecting people in a space and being present with each other and participating with each other. Human beings are very interesting, and that’s all we’ve got really: when we’re alive we find other people interesting, and when we’re depressed we find them rather boring. We’re only bored on two occasions: first we get bored when we’re depressed, and second we get bored when people are lying to us, when we are in the presence of dishonesty. Boredom is a really useful warning signal. In the theatre we see people in intense situations and it’s incredibly important that we do that.

There is a very good friend of ours who is a theatre critic who was saying that she’s seen some bad Hamlets and that she was sick of seeing productions of Hamlet in which the director didn’t really have any comment on the play. Initially I agreed with her, but then afterwards I thought and started to doubt this, this is potentially misleading. If the Hamlet is dead it will not be revived by ideas. Mind you a director who starts on Hamlet without being full of ideas, crazy or otherwise, will probably be in a state of depression, a sort of death. Sometimes when something’s dead you might feel ideas will kick it into life. A theatre that is without ideas is boring, that is because ideas follow life. Theatre without politics, or philosophy, is normally very boring, but if theatre isn’t about people then it isn’t theatre at all: everything has to go through the gear of human beings connecting with each other. But for me if you’re truly present with another person then it is a political reality. If I am fully present with you, the society in which we live will be part of that relationship. A movie that is full of too many close-ups risks being boring. We need to admit the space. No space, then no me and you. No me and you unless there is first a world that we inhabit. Obvious in real life. Less obvious when making theatre.

The Winter’s Tale: Company. Photograph: Johan Persson

So I think theatre’s role in connecting people is becoming much more important now. People have always wanted to avoid intimacy, ever since we became a species. If you look around you will always see people organising their solitariness, but now we have the technological ability to disconnect on an industrial capacity. The internet allows us the appearance of being very close to each other, when in reality it enables us to separate. There are many defenses against intimacy. It is like love what we most desire and most abhor.

There are many clever defenses so that by seeming close I can in fact cut myself off, and delude not only you but also me that I am very close. I see theatre as being about connecting people, which is something that we are very clever at evading, even if we don’t often realise it. We think we’re good communicators, but we basically crave disconnection: But that doesn’t sound so good, so we cover it up.

I’m not legislating what theatre must be about, I can only speak from a personal standpoint. But the sort of theatre I happen to like and aspire to and attempt (often clumsily) to achieve is one of human connection.

So you think theatre’s role is to engage people and facilitate communication?

For this I need to make a distinction between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is where we start from as kids: we play mirroring exercises with adults, pulling faces at each other and thinking “you’re like me”. But you’ve got to ween yourself off that pretty fast or you end up trawling the internet at thirty-five looking for people who are just like you, or feeling attracted to others because they share all of your opinions. That’s great until you meet someone who is not like you, and then you have a problem. Sympathy sounds quite warm, but actually it’s not. Whereas empathy, which sounds quite cold, is actually about understanding that somebody’s different from you. Empathy’s the way of love, and sympathy is the way of being in love. It’s very important we always remember other people are different from us. When I was younger and somebody died I would write letters in which I would say things like “I can imagine how you feel…” etc. and I now realise that was a terrible thing to say and it’s much better to write, “I have no idea what you’re going through”. You stand more of a risk of being close if you start with the second of those options.

Sympathy leads to war: that’s the problem with it.

So I believe that empathy, understanding the ways in which we are different, is a goal; and I do think that theatre’s got a huge role in enabling us to be empathetic. I am disappointed to hear of acting techniques that when you play say Macbeth you have to think how he was like you.

Of course the birth of empathy is in sympathy. I was watching that brilliant old documentary series The World At War last night. A woman was recounting how she saw her parents and child shot, how she was shot, how she was thrown into a mass grave. How she survived. Of course I start to try to connect with my own puny griefs and shocks. But in the end I had to stand back abashed and overawed and confused and disconnected and connected and angry and in a state of abject wonder. And that isn’t what I felt either. Honestly I don’t even know what I felt. We shall “never know so much nor live so long”. But I looked at her face and thought. In a way she doesn’t fully see what she has been through either. Of course she can’t. She is a human being too.

You may have a few things in common with Macbeth. But soon, you have to appreciate that, no, he’s different from you – you’re not the guy who has fooled himself into murdering the King of Scotland, but you do have the capacity empathetically to extend yourself and imagine what it might be like to be him.

By the way that function is profoundly therapeutic for actor and audience.

So you encourage actors to create a relationship with their characters?

It’s not my job to tell the truth. It’s my job to create an illusion: with other people. I create an illusion of a world and maybe ask you what you think of that world, and what connections you see between that world and ours. And everyone will feel something completely different, they have no choice. A feeling is as complex as a fingerprint, even more unique, but forensically unmeasurable. So it is the height of craziness for me to imagine that I can control how people see my work. That would be ludicrous. But it’s all about that conception of empathy: we feel for something that is essentially unknowable. That’s where theatre’s important, and increasingly so.

Measure for Measure: Alexander Matrosov, Peter Rykov, Alexander Arsentyev. Photograph: Johan Persson

Theatre matters because it’s carnal: you’re in a living space with other people who are living and breathing. Just like when you’re talking to someone very close, you need to feel them breathing: you can’t do that over Skype.

On that note, recently you have been experimenting with live streaming your performances online. Do you feel that the theatrical experience is something that can translate for people sitting behind a screen?

I feel it’s an entirely different experience. Actually the first time I saw theatre was when I was watching black and white television as a child, and this funny old programme came on when they were wearing black and white costumes, and all the people in the show were acting in this weird way. I was hypnotised: it was completely unlike all the cops-and-robbers shows and the westerns on TV, and then at the very end this large velvet object came down and wiped the characters away and I learnt afterwards that it was a theatre curtain! It had been a televised performance of some West End comedy. God knows what it was. I seemed to love it because it was so astonishingly fake.

So the first time I saw theatre was actually on TV. It’s artifice really liberated me, and that’s all can really say. It was just so shamelessly artificial and I for some reason found that absolutely wonderful. Which is much less creepy than being artificial and pretending to be real.

In light of your distinction between sympathy and empathy, and the idea that sympathy leads to war, what do you see as the wider political ramifications of theatre (if any)?

Politics for me is about negotiation – it’s the polis in the forum. In terms of theatre, is Richard III political? Merely stabbing everyone in the back to get to the top does not seem to be political to me. Persuading Lady Anne is highly political. When we see his skill as a manipulator, that is political. When we see the people’s need to be manipulated that is political. Just in the same way that Hillary and Trump screaming insults at each other doesn’t strike me as very political.

I personally found those debates in themselves surprisingly boring. In themselves. What is political is how they affected people. What is astonishing is what does not shock us, what does not disgust us.

Ubu Roi: Vincent de Bouard, Camille Cayol, Christophe Gregoire, Xavier Boiffier. Photograph: Johan Persson

Theatre is about people and that is unavoidably political (and many other things as well). I think the really important thing that theatre can do is to reveal and explore the darker sides of humanity. I was listening recently to Any Answers on Radio 4 and they were discussing the problem of international terrorism and specifically bemoaning the fact that it was impossible to decipher “what these murderers want”. One thing that nobody dared suggest is that maybe some people just want to destroy us and our society at all costs. That the hatred may encompass their own oblivion. Dressed up differently of course.

We dare not suggest this as it opens the possibility that we may all have the capacity to be more destructive and cruel than we possibly imagine. None of us knows what we might do. And if we have Gods then we do well to pray we are never put to the test.

Kaiser Wilhelm said at the start of the First World War, “maybe we will be utterly destroyed, but at least the English will lose India”. What is astounding is not what he said, but what he was mad enough to admit. I believe it is within every human being to have that thought: I hate you so much I will destroy myself to destroy you. But we don’t want to think about that, so we choose not to. I’m not saying that’s who we are, but I am saying that each of us has the capacity for unspeakable destruction and we have to be very careful when thinking, I couldn’t do that. If your child is under threat, you’d be amazed what you could do.

So what theatre can do is present us with our drives, the unspeakable as well as the charming. As theatre makers it is our responsibility to present to an audience what we think is. Other people, such as politicians, have to flatter us and come up with answers. Sometimes we jump to the answer too soon and it becomes a defense against experiencing the experience. “You see the problem we see the solution!” is many a PR firm’s mantra. But prima facie that is deranged. You have to see and feel and experience the problem first in sequence before going “on to the solution!”

In fact because we’re dealing in illusion in the theatre we can actually pose the question, “what if there is no answer?” and it’s very important that somebody asks that terrifying question. Until we can face that question, until we are brave enough to open at least that possibility, we will have no answer and no way forward. As a private citizen, as a voter, I do happen to think there are answers and I do believe (hope) that we can progress, but I think it’s important to consider both the bigger questions and the dangers of our destructive drives, and the theatre offers a unique space for both. Parliament doesn’t.

The Winter’s Tale: Orlando James, Joseph Black, Chris Gordon. Photograph: Johan Persson

Politicians have to lie and say that the people are innocent: if bad things happen then it is because we have been misled by other bad politicians, but we the voters are fundamentally innocent. But to say that life is more of a grey area, and that fundamentally we’re all capable of both good and bad things and we don’t know what we’re capable of if we’re tested, that’s the stuff that every artist explores and why art is so important. So, for example, you can’t link all the recent terrorist attacks together as they all happened for a variety of different reasons, but one thing that does link them is this: you can’t drive your car into a crowd unless you’re full of unspeakable rage. That’s a rage that can be groomed and moulded by others, and re-baptised with other holier names, but that unspeakable rage has to be present.

This could cause an outrage in government, sadly. Because every politician needs to have an answer. And a quick one at that. And even if it doesn’t work, the wrong answer is better than no answer, right? And if there is no solution to the problems we unearth we can either confront our problem till it shifts. Or we can bury them again.

However bad “it” may prove we have to face it. But there is only real hope after we have faced that there may be no hope…

So do you think theatre should be a more controversial space than it currently is?

I’m not saying that theatre should be anything; there are a million different types of theatre and they should all be able to coexist with each other. I’m saying one thing that matters for me about theatre is that it functions as a space in which we can investigate what it might be like to be another person and have another set of feelings, and that’s a very important social function. I don’t have any manifesto, that’s very important to say. I also try to avoid the word “should”, as it’s a word that does terrible things to people.

To what extent do you incorporate these views into Cheek by Jowl’s productions?

I wouldn’t try to: you can’t be putting things into your work. Of course, that’s not to say that everything I see or hear does not affect my work. The world I live in is in my work whether I like it or not.

Declan Donnellan. Photograph: Johan Persson

I live in the world and try and do my work the best I can, but I never deliberately try to bring anything in, if anything I try and keep things out – and then they always find a way of sneaking in. I am not that powerful! Samuel Beckett was famously shocked when his analyst said that he was present in all his writing, “you mean to say I give away who I am in my work?” – He actually had a complete meltdown over this realisation: he’d only been able to work under the belief in the weird fiction that his writing had a wall between it and his unconscious. Of course you think about the work and what goes into it, but I don’t direct according to preconceived ideas. What I’ve just said to you has got nothing to do with how I direct. I put the actors together in the scene, they play the scene, and I try and make it more alive, but it would be naïve to think that nothing from my outside world is going to come into it.

So you’ve kind of gestured at two different aspects of theatre and your engagement with it: you say it first impacted you as an art form because of its escapism, but you also see it as very relevant to the outside world. How do you balance these aspects?

Well the escapism reaction was when I was six, when all my present thoughts on sympathy and empathy were definitely nowhere near my mind. I would say they connect as theatre is in fact an escape into reality. We are mad: we don’t live in the real world. We don’t properly accept that we’re going to die. We walk past those HSBC adverts at the airport and we don’t even realise we’re being done, conned out of what was ours and what is being re sold to us in a fake form. Our attention is being stolen from us more actually and more by advertising and deflected away from the things that really matter. Our self-esteem is being lowered all the time as every advert says you’re not good enough, that you need this product in order to be complete.

No advert tells you you’re fine – if they did, they wouldn’t manage to sell anything. Our human values are being gradually burgled, surreptitiously stolen from us, and then we walk past the walkway at Luton airport to discover HSBC or another corporation selling them back to us. You know, those images that depict a father watching his son go swimming for the first time, or preaching the value of real friends gathered round a bonfire having a party: they’re selling back human vales to us having stolen them in the first place. Now, again, I wouldn’t “put” these opinions deliberately into my work, but I bet you they still come out in it.

Cheek by Jowl are famous for working internationally and putting on plays in a variety of languages. Particularly given your work across Europe and Russia, how do similar productions translate across different cultures, regardless of the language they’re in?

The connection to a variety of countries has always been important to us: when we started out in 1983 we were asked to perform in Madrid before we were asked to perform in London. It wasn’t planned. Very little in our “careers” has been planned.

What has been most interesting about it is the experience of exploring what it is to be a human being. It’s very easy talking now, aged sixty-three, acting like I knew what I was doing all along, but you always understand the past more clearly when looking back on it, and it would be a total lie to say I knew the path all along. I look to the future now and politically it looks deeply disturbing, yet in many respects it looked like the future did to me when I was sixteen: random, haphazard, uncertain, yet I will live and surprises are not only bad.

All we did was a gradual process, learning a bit more about what it is to be human being, what people have in common, things that are not dependent on language or culture but transcend all of that. It also gave us the opportunity to work with a variety of texts and actors from all sorts of different cultures, and to experience the theatrical cultures of other countries. For instance when working in England our actors are always on very short contracts and change from production to production because that’s the Anglo-Saxon system, which we share with the USA. But that’s not the way it is in France and Russia, where we have twenty-year relationships with certain people.

Measure for Measure: Company. Photograph: Johan Persson

For us that’s a part of why we enjoy putting on shows in those countries so much. A part of it was also us pursuing an ongoing artistic conversation: we did plays because it enabled us to meet these people and have interesting things to talk about with them. We did things to keep that life going that we share with others, and the plays are a symptom of that life.

Any work of ours that you’ll see in France or Russia is also a symptom of the ongoing conversations we have with people there. Theatre is a product of that conversation. It’s rather different in England where you organise a play and then find people to be in it. Most of these people will be strangers. Contracts in England are so short, and you have to respect the theatrical culture you’re in so you can’t buck the trend by trying to tie people down for longer as it won’t work with their schedule.

One would imagine European countries such as France and Spain would have relatively similar theatrical cultures, but do you notice a substantial difference between them and Russia?

East of the Rhine you get permanent companies, and they become more permanent the further east you go. So in Moscow one goes to drama school, then to the theatre, and then has one’s funeral on the stage. Nowadays the actors of certain theatres go away for a short while to film a movie, and that happens in Germany too. As Russia is getting the “benefits” of our free market system the system is being a little dismantled by a focus on the stars: you’re seeing a lot of the good actors are more and more being lured away, but there’s still an understanding of what the collective is, rather than just understanding a company as a temporary assemblage of individuals.

So what would you say are the pros and cons of each system?

Actors are alive and blocked across the world to a completely equal standard, but what is completely different is the cultures in which they work. Russian actors are much more accustomed to working in a group over a long period of time, so they reach their maturity later. English actors are fantastic at films, for example, because they get something very very fast, and it takes the Russians much longer to get it.

The main difference, actually, is that a Russian actor will often come up to me with flowing eyes and say, “Declan there’s someone very important I want you to meet,” and I reply “Certainly, who is it?”, and they reply “She is my teacher!” and that’s very moving. With an English actor I will often have an identical request and question, but here the answer invariably is “This is my agent!”…

You staged As You Like It with an all male cast in order to explore the power dynamics of the play at a time when that was not a fashionable thing to do. In light of Phyllida Lloyd recently doing a similar thing with her all female Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar, how far to you see yourselves as paving the way for such productions to exist?

We would never dream of paving the way for anything! Our principal aim with our work is always to take as much pleasure in it as possible, and be able to share something as well as we can at the time. So we’d never do anything for posterity, and while I’m very pleased with As You Like It – and we did a lot of other shows – paving the way isn’t something we see ourselves as doing. Obviously certain shows have an impact, for instance we staged Angels in America around the same time as As You Like It, and I suppose it just hit something in the zeitgeist of that time. It was the first time an integrated cast had been used properly like that, and, while a lot of black actors had been appearing on stage, they hadn’t been playing lead parts up until that point.

As You Like It: Simon Coates, Peter Needham, Adrian Lester. Photograph: John Haynes

And the important thing about our decision to have men playing women in As You Like It was that we took it very seriously: we made sure it wasn’t very camp – there was no sort of drag sniggering. Those things were very important and it did strike an accord with audiences all over the world. We also staged an all male Twelfth Night in Moscow in 2003, which became very famous there and is still performed in Moscow, in fact it will be performed in Spain this December. But we’ve only staged productions in which men play female roles those two times, and both times we put the emphasis on the fact that these male characters were playing women, and the aim was for the audience to forget. And then, when they saw Adrian Lester transform for the epilogue to see and to feel and to remember what they had been able to forget. And to feel the consequences of that, which must be different for each of them.

Your next production is Périclès, Prince de Tyr in French, how is that coming along?

Yes, we’re going on with our French actors with whom we’ve worked with whom we started with Andromaque by Racine about eleven years ago. They were great and wanted to do another show, and we got so close with them over the years and the productions we did with, Ubu Roi, for example had such a great life that they’re now “our French company” as it were. So we’re putting on Périclès, Prince de Tyr with them, which will be our first Shakespeare in French: we’ve just sorted out the translation and we’re going to have a week’s research and development workshop in Paris to prepare the production with rehearsals starting in January. And while all this is happening our Russian company are staging Measure for Measure in Poland and going to both Spain and China with Twelfth Night. The French company are going to start in Paris and then take Périclès, Prince de Tyr abroad, so please make sure to catch it when it comes to London!