Among the more unusual casting methods is that used by Declan Donnellan for his production of Le Cid, Corneille’s tragicomic masterpiece of 1636, which has just visited bam. Based on a Spanish play about Iberia’s semi-legendary eleventh-century hero, Le Cid tells of Rodrigo Diaz, known as El Cid (the boss), a soldier of fortune who was equally willing to fight for or against the Moors but finally proved most useful to Spain and Charlton Heston.
The play concerns the love of Chimène and Don Rodrigue, and how the latter, to avenge an insult to his father, kills his beloved’s father in a duel. Whereupon Chimène, though still in love with him, clamors for his head. But because of his valiant routing of the Moors, who paid him less than the king of Castille, our heroic mercenary earns the royal accolade. The most the king is willing to grant Chimène is for a volunteer, Don Sanche, to fight Rodrigue in a duel as her champion. But what chance has poor Sanche when the lady herself derides him mercilessly, rooting for his adversary? Yet all ends well enough for everybody except Pierre Corneille, whose masterwork is travestied here by Donnellan & Co.
Using a French cast speaking French, Donnellan, who is said to be as fluent in French as he is flaky in directing, picked most of his male actors by their torsos, to which he strips them on a slender pretext. Thus Rodrigue is played by William Nadylam, a black actor with broad shoulders and a wasp waist – a perfectly triangular torso. Other male actors who peel for Donnellan display torsos that are milky white, smooth, and elongated, or white and darkly hairy, achieving a delightfully dappled effect. Don Gomès, killed early by Rodrigue, is nevertheless kept on throughout on the sidelines, hovering as a semi-nude ghost, and even, in a particularly inventive touch, becoming his daughter’s dresser, clothing and shoeing her.
Ah, yes, not to be accused of homoeroticism, Donnellan has Chimène plead with the king barefoot and seemingly nude under her father’s military greatcoat. When she removes it, she too – but much more briefly – displays shapely, understated breasts and oversize panties, lest she outstrip the bare-chested males. Similarly, when the Infanta unaccountably sheds her dress amid the court of Castille, she is allowed to keep on her slip, lest the appeal become excessively heterosexual. She must, however, brandish a ubiquitous cigarette, which turns her into a chain-smoking harridan.
The staging consists mostly of parading about forward, backward, and sideways, as in close-order drill. Unlike Corneille, who keeps the duels offstage, Donnellan has the adversaries shadow-fencing in stop-motion from opposite sides of the stage, while between them the next scene weaves awkwardly in and out. The courtiers are given various squeals and squawks, with occasional flamenco dancing or guitar playing to obscure the words. When Rodrigue – the ramrod-stiff and blank-voiced Nadylam – is to report about his glorious naval victory, he is made to sit in the king’s chair while the king and court crouch or squat at his feet, and mingy surtitles translate about every third or fourth line of eloquent verse into drab prose.
Declan Donnellan practices directing as antithetically and abusively to the author’s intentions as perversely possible, reaping kudos from benighted reviewers and audiences alike. This was the case with every production of Cheek by Jowl, which he ran with his designer and companion Nick Ormerod. Cheek by Jowl disbanded when the pair split up, leaving behind something best described as mere Cheek. Thus the set for Le Cidconsists of three chairs and nothing else, yet earns one Philippe Marioge design credit! This kind of theater and its success augur the Declan of the West.