Magazine article The Spectator

'In the Beginning Was Breath'

Magazine article The Spectator

'In the Beginning Was Breath'

Article excerpt

Lloyd Evans talks to Declan Donnellan about his acclaimed production of Ubu Roi and taking a holiday from words

Declan Donnellan is riding high. His acclaimed production of the burlesque classic Ubu Roi has confirmed his membership of the elite group of British directors who enjoy renown across Continental Europe and beyond. The critics cheered his Frenchlanguage production of Alfred Jarry's anarchic satire when it reached Paris earlier this month. The show, created by Donnellan's company Cheek by Jowl, is currently bunny-hopping between venues on either side of the Channel. It arrives at the Barbican on 10 April where it forms part of the Dancing around Duchamp season.

I meet Donellan in a Hampstead cafe.

'My local, ' he says as two cappuccinos are clattered down in front us. He's chunkily built, in his late 50s, with a large, clean-shaven head, a squashy nose and bulbous eyes that shine impishly in a soft, quizzical face. He looks like Socrates reinvented as a racing tipster from Sligo. His voice is a low, velvety purr, full of vitality and warmth.

'The thing about a great play is that you can never say why it's great. It's like writing an obituary. You can make various descriptive attempts, but at the end of the day, the beautiful thing about the person was that they were alive.'

According to legend, there were scuffles at Ubu Roi's premiere in 1896.

Has its classic status diminished its capacity to shock?

'First, let's take apart what happened on the opening night, which has become very mythologised. The play had been in print for six months and there'd been a row about it so everyone knew what to expect, right from the very first word, "mertre".' [A pun on the French for 'shit' and 'homicide'. ] 'The audience was tiny, only 100 people in a minute theatre. And Jarry had a tremendous eye for publicity - you think of Rembrandt buying up his prints to inflate the price. He'd arranged for a claque of his friends to shout for the play. But he told them that if others shouted for it, they should shout against it. He wanted the scandal. And he definitely got it. Suddenly he was very famous.'

Donellan tries to explain Ubu's durability. 'It sticks two fingers up to French culture.

It's self-consciously crude, with stuff about lavatory brushes and shit, and the language is amazingly dextrous. And it has this bizarre power, which I think is almost magical. And, still, it's the outpouring of a jokey 12-yearold making up outrageous situations with his friends, then performing them.' All analysis of art, he goes on, is futile. He's particularly wary of observations that claim universal scope. 'Every generalisation is rubbish, ' he says. A moment later, 'All generalisations are crass.' He's often asked questions that invite sweeping or grandiose replies. 'How would you compare the actors? They're all different. Is India noisy or serene? Well, both. Are the English cold? Not really. They can be.

But the function of art, ' he continues, 'is to destroy generalisations. Art is always about the concrete and the specific. It is to take the abstract and to give it flesh. It is to incarnate.

That's why talking about it, ' he says, chuckling to himself, 'is actually impossible.'

Donnellan gets little respite from his work. Cheek by Jowl, which he founded in 1981 with the designer Nick Ormerod, has several productions on tour around the globe. …

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