The co-founder and joint Artistic Director of Cheek by Jowl talks about Cheek By Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale, which arrives at the Barbican in April following an international tour. 

Declan Donnellan
(c)Alastair Muir.

What attracted you to The Winter’s Tale, and why did you want to direct it, could you tell us a little bit about your vision for this production?

The Winter’s Tale is one of my favourite Shakespeare play. It often divides its critics – many people are of the opinion that 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 by now, 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.

You collaborate with Nick Ormerod, how do you begin the creative process when you decide on a play, do you think of a concept together? Most of the time, the ideal situation is to know which actors we want to work with next and to consider a play around them. This is nearly always the case with our Russian and French companies. We have worked with Russian actors, Sasha Feklistov, Andrei Kuzichev and Anna Khalilulina for many years now, similarly Christophe Grégoire and Camille Cayol have been in our French company since we first came together to do Andromaque in 2007.

With the English companies this is harder, there is more of a rush with young actors in England to move into TV or film work, but we’ve been very lucky to welcome back some actors we have worked with before onto The Winter’s Tale – Joy Richardson who plays Paulina, Peter Moreton who is Antigonus/Old Shepherd, Sam McArdle who is the Young Shepherd, and Orlando James, who plays Leontes, has been with us for almost every English language production since Macbeth in 2009.

Nick and I do not design the play before we start rehearsing… Nick decides on the space while I am working with the actors. And we stay with the play throughout its life, so we only do one new play a year.

What do you think makes Shakespeare such a contemporary playwright and what makes this play relevant for audiences today?

Shakespeare will always be relevant, because people will always want to learn about people. Shakespeare teaches us about people, he 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’re a renowned international company and you perform Shakespeare in all different languages, do you feel different plays suit different companies, is there a particular reason you chose to stage this with a British company?

We like to choose plays to fit the actors we want to work with. Language isn’t really a consideration – with Shakespeare especially, although it can be beautiful in many languages, it’s not really our first consideration. We have staged The Winter’s Tale before with a Russian company – it still plays in rep at the Maly Theatre in St. Petersburg. Although it is great to hear The Winter’s Tale in the original English, this is definitely not the main difference between this and the Russian production. The very same text can suit different companies – but if there’s life in the performance and the actors are alive it will never end up being the same play.

On this particular tour of The Winter’s Tale, is there any venue that is particularly special for you and that you’re looking forward to revisiting?

I don’t suppose it was a conscious choice – it is obviously an immense privilege to be able to present work to audiences in the native language, but the play is not necessarily more relevant to British audiences than our other work. We’re delighted to be returning to Cambridge Arts Theatre, Theatre Royal Bath, Oxford Playhouse, Warwick Arts Theatre, Mercury Theatre Colchester, Barbican and Bristol Old Vic – and it is also extremely exciting to making our debut at Citizens Theatre, Glasgow and Theatr Clwyd in Wales. In particular the ethos at the Citz was very formative on me and Nick thirty years ago and the spirit of that company at that time inspired us.

You have directed across lots of different arts forms, is theatre your preferred medium?

Every form; ballet, opera and 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 about life. Life, life, 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.

Congratulations on winning the Golden Lion Award for Lifetime Achievement, it must have been a huge honour, do you feel awards like this are important in recognising achievements in the arts industry?

Yes. Hugely important. Often people say awards don’t matter. But I don’t agree. They give a fillip to your confidence and all artists are confidence dependent. Mind you if you don’t respect your own work no amount of awards will help.


You’ve launched many actors’ careers, to name a few Tom Hiddleston and Adrian Lester, is nurturing young talent an important part of the work you do?

Yes – it’s been great to see actors like Adrian and Tom go on to 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.

Cheek by Jowl’s production of The Winter’s Tale will play at the Barbican from the 5th to the 22nd April. For more information and to book tickets visit: