Elizabethan parody and Russian soul: The Knight of the Burning Pestle

Cheek by Jowl director Declan Donnellan tells us about the company’s Russian-language production of Francis Beaumont’s 1607 play, at the Barbican 5-8 June.

Image © Johan Persson

Image © Johan Persson

Could you tell us a bit about The Knight of the Burning Pestle?

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a unique piece of meta-theatre. It is daring and centuries ahead of its time. It’s a play about a play which gets changed by frustrated audience members. They want to see something more popular, more positive, more glamorous. And now! So they take control of the drama unfolding on stage. It may be very funny but it’s also very dark. Francis Beaumont was writing at the brink of a revolution. A few years after the play’s performances, the new and highly popular nationalist government seized power through violence and closed down every single theatre. 

Why are you directing it now?

I think it’s a very important play for now and it was also for then. Everything seems new about The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Today, the fantasy that everyone can be an expert, without any experience, everyone can be a celebrity, everyone can tell the story, everyone can manipulate and control facts. Perhaps we have always been like that, only now we have the technology to make the delusion seem more real. What seems new is a confusion between democracy and capitalism. One-click government and the people have the right to get what they want. Like Amazon, like parliament.

Agrippina Steklova and Alexander Feklistov in rehearsal. Image © Johan Persson

Agrippina Steklova and Alexander Feklistov in rehearsal. Image © Johan Persson

Nazar Safronov as Rafe. Image © Johan Persson

Nazar Safronov as Rafe. Image © Johan Persson

How do you find working in different languages?

All great writers know that words are ambivalent and dangerous... They only take you part of the way on a journey of communication. But more importantly we also use words to deceive ourselves. This particular theme is an obsession with most of the writers I have ever staged. And they demand us to be alert and use our common sense and not be duped by what the characters profess. But only sometimes. It depends.

The different languages are not the "problem" — it is the very nature of language itself. So directing in a foreign language can actually very liberating in many ways. You don't get so confused by the apparent "meaning" and you approach words in a spirit of ignorant humility. Which is harder to do I feel in your own tongue. We are delighted to be working with our Russian actors again and to present this new show with the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre. We’ve been working in Russian for 20 years, most recently on Measure for Measure which was presented at the Barbican in 2015 and is still performing around the world.

Talking of performing around the world: do you notice differences in audience reactions?

If a work is alive, wherever it is performed, it will throw up contemporary references. No two Moscow audiences are the same… And their reactions to the same production will differ as much as if we play in Milan or Madrid. Of course, people are likely to see a production in the light of recent events taking place locally. Although these local differences are interesting, it is always the similarities that are almost more revealing: patterns of what is essentially human slowly reveal themselves across audiences and countries and decades. Human nature does not have frontier problems. But human culture and politics often do. Personally, I always hope the audience will have an encounter with a multi-faceted and imaginary world. And that they will have many different, hopefully conflicting responses, which we are not here to dictate.

But we really, really must try hard to resist generalisations about nationalities. It is very tempting and seems like harmless fun but no good ever comes of it. We are each of us unique. Agonisingly, frighteningly and beautifully unique. And although we all want to belong, although we all yearn never to be rejected, there is no "they" — there is no "we".

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is performing at the Barbican Theatre 5-8 June. The play is a co-production with the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre and is performed in Russian with English surtitles

Pushkin House Team