Declan Donnellan: A mandate to entertain

The director Declan Donnellan has returned to the National after a hugely successful sojourn in Russia. And he's brought back with him a comedy that's perfect for our times, says Paul Taylor
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Declan Donnellan is back at the National - directing his own irresistibly spirited translation of a neglected comic masterpiece of the Soviet era, Nikolai Erdman's 1925 play The Mandate. It's hard to believe that it is 10 years since Donnellan last produced work at this address, the scene of some of his greatest triumphs: Fuente Ovejuna; Sweeney Todd; and the premiere of the greatest play of the 1990s, the two-part Angels in America. In the intervening decade, he and his partner, the designer Nick Ormerod, have been busy conquering Russia - not just with visiting Cheek By Jowl ventures, but with hugely acclaimed productions for the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg and the Russian Theatre Federation ( The Winter's Tale, Boris Godunov, Twelfth Night).

Declan Donnellan is back at the National - directing his own irresistibly spirited translation of a neglected comic masterpiece of the Soviet era, Nikolai Erdman's 1925 play The Mandate. It's hard to believe that it is 10 years since Donnellan last produced work at this address, the scene of some of his greatest triumphs: Fuente Ovejuna; Sweeney Todd; and the premiere of the greatest play of the 1990s, the two-part Angels in America. In the intervening decade, he and his partner, the designer Nick Ormerod, have been busy conquering Russia - not just with visiting Cheek By Jowl ventures, but with hugely acclaimed productions for the Maly Theatre of St Petersburg and the Russian Theatre Federation ( The Winter's Tale, Boris Godunov, Twelfth Night).

Donnellan and Ormerod have accordingly found themselves with their own ad hoc company of Russian actors - "a kind of Cheek By Jowlski" quips the director. In Russia, it appears that whatever Donnellan wants, Donnellan gets. Approached by the Bolshoi to direct an opera, he remarked at the introductory meeting that what he really fancied directing was a ballet. In the taxi on the way home, this complete dance-beginner was rung up and given his choice of the repertoire. The result - a modern ballet version of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet - was venerated in Moscow last December and pilloried by British dance critics when it landed here in the summer.

Now, however, London is about to receive a double helping of straight theatre from Donnellan. Next month, less than a fortnight after The Mandate opens, his Cheek By Jowl production of Othello will touch down in the capital at the Riverside Studios after a tour that has taken it from LA to Sydney and round the English provinces. I met him during a lunch break at the National. "It's a wonderful time to be back in British theatre," he says, "with Nick Hytner here and Michael Boyd at the RSC. It was a terribly emotional day for me, the first day I started here after 10 years. I felt," he jokes, "like the Grand Duchess Anastasia returning like some ghost that had survived the basement in Ekaterinburg." He is alluding to a plot strand in The Mandate where a group of Russians, who still dream of the restoration of the monarchy, convince themselves that they have found Anastasia, the miraculously extant heir of the Romanov dynasty, only to discover that she's just a maid in a posh frock who's got locked in a chest.

Erdman's play, Donnellan argues, is "about a society that no longer knows what it is, at a time of profoundly changing values when a war has been used as a diversion from problems at home and paranoia has been manipulated by the state in order to bring people to heel. So," he adds dryly, "it has absolutely nothing to do with the way we live now..." The Mandate depicts a period when bourgeois families needed the insurance policy of a party member in their ranks to cushion them from the most brutal effects of Communism, and the absurd Pavel Sergeievich Guliachin finds himself having to pose as one so as to become a kind of human dowry for his sister's marriage.

Lunacharsky, the Commissar for Culture, pronounced The Mandate "the first truly Soviet play" - a judgement that seems baffling to us, given its very clear-eyed perspective on the corruption, oppression and protection racketeering that have arisen from the new system. "What's interesting," says Donnellan, "is that it got performed on the understanding that it was a savage satire - in the tradition of Gogol - against the counter-revolutionaries who were trying to undo Communism." In fact, its satire is nimbly double-jointed.

The director admires the way that Erdman "connects high tragedy and low farce, which is a much deeper connection than that between high tragedy and comedy of manners". There are uproarious scenes in The Mandate, such as the ones where we see the Guliachins vainly endeavouring to be prolier-than-thou and bringing in hired members of the working class to pretend to be their relatives. But there's also the chilling final sense of state power grown so strong that it can afford to ignore the single human voice of protest. In Erdman's later banned play, The Suicide (1930), the hero is eventually driven to ringing the Kremlin to demand that someone from the top brass be informed that he has read and does not like Marx. They simply hang up on him. Likewise in The Mandate, the militia can't even be bothered to arrest Pavel Sergeie-vich. It would pay him too much of a compliment. "It's terrible," says Donnellan, "and is all to do with robbing you of the right to be an individual."

Erdman himself spent the bulk of the 1930s in Siberian exile, and between then and his death in 1970 he worked on adaptations of classics and scripts for children's animations. " The Suicide wasn't performed at all in Russia during his lifetime. There was a strange Swedish production in the late Sixties. He wasn't given permission to leave the country, so he had to sit by the telephone waiting for the reviews. Can you imagine: one of the greatest talents of the 20th century sitting by the phone waiting for reviews from Sweden!" But though Erdman didn't write another original drama, his wry, morally fortifying presence continued to be a source of strength to theatre practitioners, some of whom have since become friends of Donnellan.

The director may well one day mount a production of The Mandate with his Russian company. His rapport with Russian actors derives from shared priorities. "Cheek By Jowl's working methods turn out to be - by coincidence rather than by design - a very Russian way of working, which is to do with the ensemble and my belief that theatre is an actor-led art and that the director's first responsibility is to oversee the health of the acting of the ensemble. If I say, 'We're not going to start on the book, we're going to start moving in the space and discovering relationships and finding out what this world is', Russian actors say, 'Of course'. It saves a lot of time."

The strength of the company's collective vision of Shakespeare's tragedy has been repeatedly praised during Cheek By Jowl's world tour of Othello. His company is concurrently touring with Twelfth Night, and Donnellan has been struck by how both Viola and Iago have the same line: "I am not what I am". "I find that very moving. How could those characters be more different? And yet in a way Iago must be terribly in love with Othello to want to destroy him so badly. And just as Viola is ignored by Orsino, Iago is ignored by Othello."

The director's future productions include Three Sisters with the Russian Theatre Federation. Before arriving at the National, he spent two weeks with the actors doing improvisation work on the play. "We were supposed to be rehearsing in Tolstoy's house. But then we discovered that it had no bathrooms..." Another project close to his heart is Lermontov's great tragedy of jealousy, Maskerade. Like The Mandate, it is a large-cast play, requiring 18 actors. This rules it out as a Cheek By Jowl venture because the Arts Council is not providing the sums of money necessary. It's a piece, though, that would fit perfectly into the repertoire of the National Theatre or the Russian Theatre Federation. Or both. Home, and home-from-home (or should that be the other way round?). "I'm fantastically lucky to work in two cultures," declares Donnellan, manfully suppressing any hint of a smirk.

'The Mandate', Cottesloe, NT. Previews from tomorrow, opens 26 October (020-7452 3000). 'Othello', Riverside Studios, London W6, 10 November to 4 December (020-8237 1111)

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