A previous Tony nominee for staging the history-inspired Frost/Nixon, which, like Red, began at the Donmar, Grandage is nothing if not eclectic. His taste in projects is wide: In addition to Red, the two-character John Logan play about artist Mark Rothko, Grandage has recently staged Hamlet starring Jude Law (also 2010 Tony nominee), the London revival of Evita starring Argentinian actress Elena Roger (which may yet surface on Broadway), Chekhov's Ivanov, Ibsen's The Wild Duck and the musicals Grand Hotel and the Olivier Award-winning Guys and Dolls, among other works from past, recent past and present. This fall, he'll stage King Lear starring Derek Jacobi at the Donmar. Nine days before the June 13 Tony Awards, he spoke to Playbill.com about how Red came to his desk, how he approaches scripts and what's coming up.
As an American theatregoer, I had an expectation that Red was going to be sort of a solo play — a docudrama, a biographical play — about Mark Rothko, with him telling anecdotes about his life. I was so glad that it's so much more ambitious than that. It's about change and age and fathers and sons and monomania. What attracted you to the material?
Michael Grandage: Many things. First of all, it's a play about why art is serious, and I think that was something that appealed to me, perhaps, more than anything. That taking something seriously, and the fact that it's about aspiring — it's about wanting to do something better and achieving something. It's about learning, it's about passing on information and receiving information. It's about the character of how good you are at passing on information, and it's about the character of how good somebody can actually take advice and help and information. It operates on so many levels as a play, but ultimately, for me, it's a play, as I say, that takes art seriously. And I mean art in the bigger sense. I mean art as in paintings, I mean art as in everything we do. Creativity — it takes creativity seriously and asks you to look at it in a serious way and talk about it in a serious way. And I think that's important today.
I love the ambition of it.
MG: Well, you said a moment ago that it wasn't quite what you expected. And I think the thing that excited me about its structure is that it took two years in the life of an artist rather than the [entire] life of the artist, and...examined a particular point in his life... And that makes it the play it is. I think the fact that John Logan didn't want to write a biopic, but [wanted] to take this quite famous figure in 20th-century art and look at a very specific, detailed period of his life, is what makes the play, structurally, very interesting. And I think many people have been taken by surprise at what they receive when they go to the theatre, because I think…there's probably an expectation that it might be something that's biographical, over a life, and it's so much more interesting than that.
The idea of mortality is very important in Red. Does that hang over this piece?
MG: Well, it does, because of what happened quite a bit after this period [Rothko committed suicide]. It was important, certainly, for all of us working on it and specifically for Alfred [Molina] who was playing the Rothko role, that the play doesn't end with his death and it doesn't really end, necessarily, with his death imminent. After the period of the play, there are ten active years of Rothko painting, though admittedly in the latter part of that period, he suffered and went into a decline and took his own life very quickly at the end of the decade, later. But there is a substantial period of active life left in the artist at the end of the play Red, and I think it's quite important that when Ken, the assistant, leaves to explore a new life, he doesn't leave a dead man in the room or a man who's given up or a man who's at the end of his life or indeed a man that's at the end of his imagination. He leaves a man still working, still active, going on doing what he does, and the younger man goes out to try and create an identity for himself as well. And I think that's quite important. You're right to identify what art is there in the play, and God knows it is. But it sort of needs to just be another theme in the play, rather than the great, big hammer blow at the end of the play. There is a hint or a shadow of creative mortality in the play. Change is coming to the art world.
MG: That's right, and I think that that's the way to look at it, and I think that's important that it is that: It's a theme in a very multilayered play, that's just another layer. And it's an exciting layer, as well, because it brings out everything that's to come, what might be taking over in this man's life creatively, intellectually, emotionally. All of these things play a part. But it is just another layer to the play.
Was this a Donmar commission?
MG: It wasn't a commission. John wrote it for the Donmar, because he spent a year in London working on a film script, and during that year, came to all six of our productions and fell in love with the space and got in touch with us and said that he had an idea for a play but would love to write it with this space in mind. And I said what any artistic director would say, I guess, to that, which is, "Please write the play and let us see it. It'd be lovely." But I had no idea that the play that arrived would be something we would want to do, but the moment it landed on my desk, I was very clear that I wanted to do it, and we have done it with hardly any changes from the first script that arrived.
That was my next question. I'm curious to know what kind of director you are when you're working with a living writer. Do you like to play dramaturg, and prompt the shaping and maturing of the writing, or is your instinct to direct what's on the page?
MG: Well, at the moment, I'm running a theatre that is not a new-writing theatre, and it has none of the resources of a new-writing theatre — no dramaturg in house. My dramaturgical skills are limited because I've chosen to limit them. To answer your question, I enjoy responding to a piece of work and doing the piece of work. I don't enjoy reading a play and then thinking, "How can we change this or shape it or do something with it?" What I want to do is the work, and so I tend to read a play, and have an immediate response that means I want to do it — or, if I like it but I don't know that it's material that speaks to me, which is a different situation, I will happily send it to other directors to find out if they would be interested in directing it. But in terms of me directing a play, I don't enjoy the process of going to a writer and saying, "Now, can we change this into something else?"
What do you mean by "new-writing" theatre? I thought the Donmar was committed to new works —
MG: It is committed to new work, it's just that it's not a "new-writing" theatre. They're two very different things. We're certainly committed to new writing, and we do about one new play a year out of our six productions, at least. Sometimes, two of the six are new plays. But the important thing to remember is a new-writing theatre is a theatre that is set up with all the departments to commission plays, which we don't do; to do workshops of plays; to do readings of plays; and a whole sort of system in place to take new writing through to the stage. Our new-writing policy, if you like, is: "Do we like the play? If we do, we'll do it."
I misunderstood what you meant by "new-writing theatre."
MG: In a way, it's a rather healthy new-writing policy, if you like, because [Laughs] it means you have to just respond to the new piece and either put it on or not, and so it cuts out a massive area of worry, actually. But that said, I support, 'cause I think it is important — there are many [theatres], as you probably know, in London, that do have a structure to help writers get their plays to the stage. We're just not one of those theatres, that's all.
Your Hamlet was the first time I had seen a Michael Grandage-directed Shakespeare. I loved the clarity of it, and yet I loved the wintry darkness of it. It did not seem overly layered with clutter or "concept." Is it characteristic of your approach to Shakespeare?
MG: Well, it's my approach to everything, really. I want to serve the writer, first and foremost, and whether the writer is dead or alive, I think one of the most interesting things a director can do is try to get back into the writer's head and somehow work out the clarity of what the writer was trying to do when they first wrote the words onto a page. And so, "concepts," which I heartily approve of and love going to see — they just aren't something that I enjoy doing a great deal myself, because they tend for me to get in the way sometimes. Rather than illuminate it for me, they tend to slightly get in the way of me being able to find a direct line to the text. So what you call a "concept-free production" — although I hope there are things in it that illuminate through some form of creativity, obviously — that is a good analysis of, probably, how I come to any piece of work, including Red. It doesn't mean you don't have a design, it doesn't mean you don't have a fantastically creative approach to the work as an interpretive artist, which is what I am as a director: an interpretive artist with a creative brief, if you like. And one's creativity happens through immense collaboration, with lighting designers, designers, composers, and of course, the actors, and if the writer is living, with the writer, as well. But it's something that I enjoy, particularly with writers who are long dead: trying to just find some kind of simple clarity back to where the starting point was.
"Words, words, words."
MG: Yes, yes, yes.
And having said that, can you give us a hint of what your Lear with Derek Jacobi will be this fall?
MG: Well, it will be exactly what I've just described to you in terms of its approach, which is, with Derek — who I've worked with many times before now — we and the company of actors of this extraordinary play will try and get to the heart of the piece as we see it. The process will start probably much earlier than the rehearsal room. We come up with a design idea or indeed a design concept, one can say. Because whatever it is, it's got some kind of design concept about it, as all one's productions have. So that process, though, is so far away at the moment, I can't actually help you today with any particular direction it's going to go in.
It's not set in a traveling carnival in Brighton, where everyone is nude?
MG: I can tell you that it won't be. [Laughs]. That much I can say this early.