Declan Donnellan, director of Cheek by
Jowl’s "Othello," which will be at BAM’s Harvey Theater
Oct. 5-10, originally studied law at Cambridge University but
gave it up at age 22 to try his hand at drama.
The world of theater has good reason to be grateful for the change in career path.
Founded with Nick Ormerod in 1981, Donnellan’s Cheek by Jowl has become world famous for its original approach to European classics, particularly Shakespeare. Yet Donnellan says he makes no special effort to be original. It is rather the natural outgrowth of his method.
"I would never, ever try to be original," he told GO Brooklyn in a telephone interview from London, where his company is based. "I try to ignore tradition. I always try to do a work as well as I can. The audience should have the idea the play is being written as the actors are doing it. The actors make the words seem inevitable. The most important thing is that the piece of art is alive."
Donnellan says he loves Shakespeare because his plays are about art, not because they are museum pieces.
"Shakespeare’s plays are about the absolute essentials of human nature. They take us to the extremes of feeling and the things we have in common as human beings," he explains. "In Shakespeare there are fantastic coincidences of planes - supernatural, personal, political, sexual, romantic - all those things that are permanently interesting."
Donnellan sees a separate world of imagery in each of Shakespeare’s plays. In "Lear" the imagery is all about the horror of nothing, in "Macbeth" it’s evil. "Othello," he says, "is very different from other tragedies because it’s not about the fall of a head of state."
"’Othello’ is about a domestic tragedy, the murder of a wife - and the state goes on quite happily," says Donnellan. "’Othello’ is about love. The great thing about Shakespeare is that he investigates and feels and re-feels everything about love. In ’Othello,’ love is bound to jealousy and envy." (British actor Nonso Anozie will perform the title role at BAM.)
If the theme of racial prejudice is emphasized in British and American productions for social and historical reasons, Donnellan does not believe this is justified by the text.
"Othello seems well assimilated at the beginning of the play," he says. "Iago gets him to turn against himself. He has the intuition of the psychotic and finds the trigger to Othello’s madness."
Donnellan’s love for Shakespeare, however, is not to the exclusion of other works. He has also directed Tony Kushner’s "Angels in America" and "Homebody/Kabul."
"I love Tony’s plays," says Donnellan. "He has the qualities that many great writers have. He is fascinated by love and how it breaks down."
Donnellan has his own group of actors in Russia with whom he works, assisted by an interpreter. He says he is attracted to the Russian theater because of its tradition of fine acting and its many acting schools.
Recently, the Bolshoi Ballet invited him to direct an opera but he decided instead to direct the ballet, "Romeo and Juliet," which will be on tour in Boston at the end of September.
"I’ve always been in love with ballet," he explains. In fact, Donnellan says it was seeing Kenneth MacMillan’s "Romeo and Juliet," and also Peter Brook’s "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," when he was 16, that caused him to fall in love with theater.
Donnellan’s "As You Like It," at BAM’s 1994 Next Wave Festival featured an all-male cast, yet the director says there will be no major changes in the staging of this month’s "Othello." But one can expect that his definitive personal style will be very evident on the BAM stage.
Cheek by Jowl and Theatre du Nord’s production of "Othello" plays Oct. 5 and Oct. 7 through 8 at 7:30 pm, Oct. 6 at 7 pm, Oct. 9 at 7:30 pm and 2 pm and Oct. 10 at 3 pm at BAM Harvey Theater (651 Fulton St. at Flatbush Avenue in Fort Greene). Tickets are $25, $40 and $60. For tickets, call (718) 636-4100 or visit www.bam.org.