When the director Declan Donnellan and the designer Nick Ormerod started Cheek by Jowl in 1981, they knew what kind of theatre they wanted to make. Stripped down, modern, simple productions with sets that could be easily moved – this became the trademark Cheek by Jowl show. They put on Andromaque in 2007 with only a series of low-lying factory lamps and wooden chairs, and did Troilus and Cressida (2008) in white combat trousers. They work extensively abroad, particularly in Russia and Paris, and make work in three languages. They often have several different shows opening in different continents at once – their all-male production of Twelfth Night in Russian, for instance, opened in 2003 and has been performed almost continuously since then.
Bel Ami, their first feature film and their first time as co-directors, seems to be a good enough reason to break away from the norm. Set in Paris at the turn of the 19th century, it is a rococo romp of an adaption of Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel of the same name. Unashamedly frivolous, it is a far cry from their streamlined, stark theatrical productions. Robert Pattison stars as the anti-hero Georges Duroy, a soldier returned from Algeria who falls into journalism, mainly through the help of the wives of newspaper editors. Seducing society women played by Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman and Kristen Scott Thomas, he spends more time in his “love nest” than in the office.
It’s a type of joyous – some might say camp – melodrama that may not appeal to everyone. But the enjoyment that Donnellan and Ormerod felt working in the medium comes across.
“We had a great time working on the film,” says Ormerod, a tall, quietly spoken figure, who trained as a barrister before becoming a designer. “Our view is that directing a film is too much work for one person. The fact that our skills are in different areas – I never spoke with the actors, but tended to look after the locations, set and cameras – worked. It was a bit like site-specific theatre, being presented with different locations and devising the story.”
Donnellan, the chattier of the two, continues: “We are used to being under pressure. If we are given a strange space for our theatre work we always completely change the show – normally to the delight of the actors. But that’s also what happened with Bel Ami. It was remarkable how much of the process was similar.”
The process may be similar, but the result is very different. Fans of Cheek by Jowl might be surprised by Bel Ami, which is significantly less experimental than their theatrical shows, such as the upcoming production of ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore at the Barbican, which follows their well- received Barbican productions of Macbeth (2010) and The Tempest (2011). Like Bel Ami, ‘Tis Pity heavily revolves around sexual intrigue – John Ford’s 1633 play was later often banned because of the theme of incest between brother and sister Giovanni and Annabella. As Donnellan puts it: “The wonderful thing about ‘Tis Pity is that you don’t have to explain the taboo. In Romeo and Juliet you continually have to explain that the Montagues and the Capulets are from different families, now all you have to say is that they are from the same family.”
For this production Donnellan and Ormerod have again reverted to their roles of director and designer, and have set the play in modern dress. Yet when I press them on how they make decisions about how their shows are going to look, and how they collaborate, they suggest it is an instinctive process, almost as mysterious to them as it may be to an outsider. “It’s set in Annabella’s bedroom and she’s a modern adolescent,” explains Ormerod. “But I can’t think how that happened.”
“It just sort of happened in week two or three,” adds Donnellan. “The thing is that you are grappling towards a form. And where does any form of art come from? Whenever we have a concept before we begin to rehearse, we always end up throwing it away. Sometimes we have ideas beforehand which are conceptual, such as when we did an all-male As You Like It or an all-male Twelfth Night. But nearly always when you go into a rehearsal room with an idea you end up throwing it out.”
The pair met as students at Cambridge, and are partners as well as colleagues – which may contribute to the fact that they cannot quite pin down how or why they work so well together. Donnellan will sometimes finish Ormerod’s sentences. When I ask how they go about choosing a play, Ormerod quips: “Almost never do we have conversations. Essentially, Declan would take the lead, but we are kind of like a pair of producers.”
This means that their productions, particularly aspects of the design, can change radically during the rehearsal process. “We start working on the play in rehearsal,” Donnellan says, “and Nick sketches around what we are doing.”
“Cheek by Jowl developed as a vehicle that could do that, because we have quite small sets and minimal scene-changes,” Ormerod explains. “We can make decisions two or three weeks into rehearsal. Which doesn’t happen in any other theatre that I know of elsewhere.”
Part of the reason they have the freedom to work like this is the reception Cheek by Jowl receives abroad. They frequently collaborate with Peter Brook’s Bouffes du Nord theatre in Paris, and have an ensemble of actors in Russia they regularly work with. “In Russia they are very good to us because they give us two weeks to take the actors off into the woods to experiment,” says Donnellan, “and a period in which to design it. That’s the most civilised way.”
Working in Europe or Russia gives the pair the ability to develop their aesthetic, and try out aspects of a production before transferring it back to Britain. They nearly always open their shows first in Paris, which may be one of the reasons why Bel Ami is full of wistful, attractive shots of that city. “I’d love to run a theatre [in London] but that would cut off part of our lives in Paris and Russia,” explains Donnellan. “We’ve got roots in those places that it is hard to give up. And the theatres are full. Even during the financial crisis in Russia the restaurants were empty but the theatres were full.”
Having proved they can fill theatres worldwide, it just remains to be seen if the same effect can transfer to the big screen.
‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’, Barbican, London, February 16-March 10, www.barbican.org.uk
‘Bel Ami’ is showing at the Berlin Film Festival, February 16-18