How We Met: Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod

Nick Curtis
Sunday 18 September 2011 09:55

Theatre director Declan Donnellan was born in Manchester in 1953. He studied English and then Law at Cambridge, and in 1981 set up touring company Cheek by Jowl with Nick Ormerod, with whom he shares a flat in Hampstead. He is also Associate Director at the Royal National Theatre.

Designer Nick Ormerod was born in London in 1951. He studied Law at Cambridge and was called to the Bar, before going to art school to study theatre design. He is co-director of Cheek by Jowl and has designed all their shows, as well as Declan Donnellan's productions at the National.

DECLAN DONNELLAN: It was 1972: I had just gone up to Cambridge and wanted to do lots of theatre. Nick and I were introduced at a rehearsal for a European tour of Macbeth. Britain was going into the Common Market, and so all these anoraked, long-haired students were going to be wined and dined by European ambassadors. I found the whole thing almost unbearably glamorous.

I was playing Lennox. Nick was a year ahead of me and was playing the Second Murderer with an awesome cockney accent and a plastic cudgel, which he used to murder Steven Pimlott - now a leading director - every night. It was freezing, and he was wearing a blue overcoat and looked very grand and somehow opulent. My background is Irish agricultural, while Nick had been to Eton and seemed cold and distant, which was quite intriguing. We had a Chinese takeaway together at Queens' the second night of rehearsals and we were inseparable from the start.

We didn't become lovers on the tour. We were very confused about our identities to begin with, and we didn't live together until we had both left Cambridge and moved to London. I'm nervous of saying it, because I hate sounding sentimental, but it really was love at first sight, and that hasn't changed.

At first I wanted to be an actor, which thank God I have no talent for, and then there was a period after Cambridge when we both thought we would be barristers, until Nick decided he wanted to go to art school. I told my pupil master I was confused and wanted to take some time off, and he told me to be very careful, because I wasn't getting any younger. I was nearly 22. It was one of those liberating nexus points in my life, because there's nothing that puts power in your hands like getting very bad advice.

That started a very demoralising period of three or four years' writing to the rep theatres asking for directing work while showing tourists round London. We were living together, Nick was working at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, and I wasn't working, so we thought finally that we should do something together. We did some plays on the Fringe, persuading actors to work for us for nothing - which is pretty much what we do now. Eventually we decided to try to get some money for Cheek by Jowl.

We're lucky to have found something we can do together: I wouldn't much like to work apart from Nick. We never had any role models for our relationship, and so we've created our own. The idea of people being married but working separately or having separate bank accounts strikes me as odd and rather boring.

We don't really have a professional relationship; we never have meetings, and nothing is ever written down, which is the despair of anyone who works with us. The idea of a family is important to me. A piece of theatre has to be moving in some way, and for that I need an emotional docking, not just with Nick but with all the people involved, where they turn up on time not because they're professionals, but because they've made an emotional commitment to the rest of the cast. We usually work in motion with the actors, designing and directing on the hoof. So we always have huge rows at the National because Nick has to get the set in beforehand, and I don't understand sets without actors.

When we first did Angels in America he had the set at home when Peter Brook came round; Peter was fascinated by it and started playing with it, and as he left Nick looked at me murderously because Peter had spent more time on it than I had. We do have our rows. I remember a set being thrown once, but theatre is just a detail of our lives, so we're as likely to argue about a set as we are about crashing the car. I find the idea of being 'professional' funny: it's important to improvise your life, to take your work seriously but not your career. Our relationship is about love and commitment, and about friendship. Like most couples, we're very similar but totally different on a frivolous social level. I'm an Irish Catholic and he's an English atheist. I talk all the time and he's incredibly quiet: people assume he's thinking very profound things, whereas he's probably wondering what to have for lunch. He's shockingly tactless, and when he's drunk his tongue loosens, which is very amusing. He seems cold but he's very warm, and unbelievably decent, while I have a shaming difficulty over forgiveness. I love going abroad, and Nick doesn't, which is terrible for him. I don't drive, Nick does. But our big shared interests are all the animal ones: eating, sleeping, laughing, being indolent.

We don't need separate space. I can imagine easily that we could give up the theatre and do something different, because we pre-existed as a couple for a long time. Theatre's probably the second love of my life.

NICK ORMEROD: We were bit parts in a production of Macbeth which was to tour Europe, which is what we've done ever since. I was in my second year at Trinity, and I had done a production of The Seagull with the director the year before, but Declan was in his first year at Queens' and it was his first college show. My first impression was of a blond head of hair and a green anorak with rabbit fur trim. He was probably about as good as Lennox as I was as the Second Murderer: someone recorded it and I had this terrible plummy voice, so I tried an awful broad cockney to cover it.

I was attracted to Declan's warmth and ebullience and charm, and also to his talkativeness, because I've never been a great talker. We hit it off immediately, and we were inseparable: we'd escape from Cambridge in my Fiat 500 to go and eat two or three times a week. Two people could eat for pounds 5 in those days. We didn't say we would live together when we first met, but on a friendship level we were very close immediately. Initially it was acting that interested me, and I'd still like to act, but my confidence was rather destroyed by the incestuous, bitchy, highly competitive atmosphere of college theatre. I had also designed one or two college productions - although I didn't really know what I was doing and I don't know if you could call it design - and had done a great deal of drawing and painting. I decided that I wanted to give up law and go to design school, although I spent a year in London

finishing my studies while getting a portfolio together and going to evening classes. Declan took law further than I did and applied for all sorts of other jobs in the media, which took a few years; it's much harder for a director because there's no obvious route in. We didn't start working together until 1979, and we formed Cheek by Jowl in 1981.

It's been very easy for us to work together, but we hit problems when we come to the National, because things are required 13 weeks in advance and Declan hates planning things. That works fine with Cheek by Jowl, because we start with a tabula rasa and between us we're good at creating a company, a family feeling, on the rehearsal room floor, out of which the best work comes. Through that process the design becomes obvious. We don't discuss it, it's sort of symbiotic rather than an expressed relationship. Problems arise, though, when I have to sit him down in front of a model months in advance and talk him through it. That said, there's never been a disaster because our approach to theatre has developed together, and we have the same ideas about what's required. Neither of us likes scene changes.

The really intense periods of work are stressful, so we have to make sure we have proper breaks. We relax during rehearsals by going home, eating and watching television. I cook, but he's the cook, the one with talent. We do go to the theatre together if we know it's going to be good, but more often to the cinema since the theatre's not fabulous at the moment.

Even at the most stressful times I've never thought we should stop working or living together: I've just thought, let's get this job out of the way. We almost function as one, and we don't really like being apart. We complement each other very well: he talks and I'm quiet; when I'm weak he's strong. But as time goes on I find it difficult to be specific as to our different strengths and weaknesses: it's kaleidoscopic, in a way. We are as close now as we were at the beginning, if not more so, since I'm better balanced now than I was then.

We do work apart as well, but it's easier for me because I can be asked by a director. Declan has to do the asking, and it would cause considerable offence to me if he started asking other designers in. When I work with other directors I feel very frustrated because I simply don't have that input he allows me. -

(Photograph omitted)

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