Michael Grandage, who takes over from Sam Mendes on Dec. 1, took a break from rehearsing his first production as Artistic Director — Noël Coward's The Vortex — to talk to Theatrenow.
You're taking over the Donmar, but keeping your role at the Crucible in Sheffield? "Yes. It's expected that an Artistic Director of the Donmar would also take on other freelance projects — as Sam did with the National and RSC — it's just that my projects will be at Sheffield."
This is an interesting time for London theatre, with a number of new artistic directors lined up. "There's a lot of change in the subsidized sector of theatre, which is coincidental but creates a sense of something happening, an excitement, which I hope to carry through at the Donmar."
You're kicking off at the Donmar with a Noël Coward play, The Vortex. Is this because you specifically wanted to tap into the fashion for Coward, or to have a high-profile author for your first play? "It's simply that I think The Vortex is a great play, and I secured the rights to it about three years ago — long before I knew I would be running the Donmar. It's taken this length of time for me to find the right cast, but everything's come together very well now." The play and your production are set in the 1920's, but you have, for example, a black actor as the central character, Nicky Lancaster. Is color-blind casting something that's going to be a feature of your productions? "There are two answers to that, really. First, theatre is an art form where you can have anyone be whatever you want them to be, onstage. When I was an actor, in my 20's, I played an 18-year-old public schoolboy from Belfast. I was neither 18, nor a public schoolboy, nor from Belfast, but there I was onstage — that was what the audience had to believe, and we went from there. The same principle applies to an actor's color.
"Something I feel very strongly about theatre is that we need to reflect what's going on outside it. The Donmar is in Covent Garden, in the middle of London, and we need to reflect the make up of our potential audience."
Is this just a question of getting a wider range of people into the theatre? "No, that's just part of what we have to do. I want to attract a young audience — as we did with the production of Richard III at Sheffield, where over 50% of the audience were aged between 16 and 26 — and I want our productions to appeal to them, and reflect the cultural diversity that they live with in everyday life.
"But it's important also to have a sense of outreach, of taking theatre to people rather than just enticing them in to your building. I'm keen to have our productions seen in places other than the Donmar, and the fact that it's a small space means that by definition the productions can be taken to most theatres, or indeed other performance spaces where you might not normally expect to see plays staged."
You've mentioned that you were an actor before taking up directing — do you think that gives you an advantage when it comes to working with actors? "That's something that people often assume must be the case, but I don't think it necessarily is. One of the best directors I ever worked with was Nicholas Hytner, who has always been a director rather than an actor. They're very different skills, and I don't think the one gives you a particular insight to the other."
After The Vortex you've got two European plays programmed — Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo and Caligula by Albert Camus. Can we expect to see more European drama at the Donmar? "Yes! The Donmar has done very little European drama recently, and I'd like to redress the balance a little. It's an area of theatre I find very rewarding, and it's also fascinating to see what new translations can bring to a play."
What about new plays? Will you commission any? "The Donmar simply doesn't have the resources to do that. We might take on a new play that has proved itself, either in workshop or production, but we can't afford the risk of commissioning one. If you're as big as the National, then if a new play turns out not to be as good as you'd hoped, then you can at least afford to "carry" it, but at the Donmar it would be disastrous, so it's not a risk we can afford. The nearest to commissioning a new play that I will get is commissioning new translations of classic ones!"
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow