Theatre: Interview: Declan Donnellan, Cheek by Jowl

Steve Wright, April 21, 2017

The renowned Cheek by Jowl stage one of Shakespeare’s most atmospheric and emotionally powerful stories. “The Winter’s Tale tells of a delusional and paranoid king who tears his family apart. But initial darkness gives way to joy as Time leads the characters to a shattering conclusion…” Director Declan Donnellan tells us more about the production – and his long and fruitful career with the company, a hugely respected outfit that has nurtured the likes of Tom Hiddleston and Adrian Lester.

What attracted you to The Winter’s Tale?
It’s one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. It often divides its critics – many people believe its lack of unity is its great undoing. Conversely, I think it is its unity that makes it such a brilliant story. When it was first performed it would have been very much out of fashion with London theatre audiences of the time who were becoming more accustomed to seeing city comedies that to a certain degree followed the three unities of time, place, and action.

What I love about The Winter’s Tale is that it smashes these three standard unities and replaces it with unities of its own – abandonment, forgiveness, redemption. The differing plots in Bohemia and Sicilia make sense of each other even though they are completely and almost explicitly disunited by time, place and action. Yet it is hard to tell the whole story of The Winter’s Tale without them. Everything comes to together in unity to its final climax of redemption.

What keeps Shakespeare – and this play – relevant for audiences today?
Shakespeare will always be relevant, because people will always want to learn about people. Shakespeare teaches us about ourselves. It’s not like Shakespeare’s plays will suddenly become more or less relevant to audiences at a certain point in history. Shakespeare understands that it is our carnality that makes us human, and this will always make us human, now or in another 400 or 4000 years’ time. It is our carnality – Shakespeare is full of love and loss, tenderness and violence, shit and spirit.

You’ve directed across lots of different arts forms. Is theatre your preferred medium?
Every form – ballet, opera, film – presents its own challenges. That is such a boring thing to say, I can’t believe I just said it! More interesting is what these forms have in common – the most important thing they all share, which is life. For example in a movie you try to bottle life. In ballet it’s not just the step – it’s the living impulse that stimulates the step that is crucial.

You’ve launched the careers of many big-name actors, Tom Hiddleston and Adrian Lester among them. Is nurturing young talent an important part of the work you do?
Yes – it’s been great to see actors like Adrian and Tom develop – as it is with all of our actors, Russians as well. We do enjoy working with young actors. There is more opportunity to create a real ensemble when working with those who always want to learn – this isn’t really limited to young actors, however, as there are many older actors who we enjoy working with and who seem to enjoy repeatedly working with us!

What other projects are you looking forward to working on in 2017?
As well as following The Winter’s Tale on tour throughout this year, we’re excited to be working again with our French company. It will be the first time we produce a Shakespeare play in French. Pericles, Prince of Tyre will premiere in early 2018. It was also fantastic to get the chance to catch up with our Russian Measure for Measure company at the Sydney Festival earlier this January.

The Winter’s Tale is at Bristol Old Vic from Tuesday, April 25 to Saturday, April 29. For more info and to book tickets, visit

Pics: Johan Persson

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