Big Interview: Michael Grandage

Published December 18, 2012

I feel a little like Wile E Coyote chasing the Road Runner as I interview Michael Grandage.

This is obviously not because I’m furry and trying to ensnare him using increasingly more elaborate but ineffective traps, though the leading West End director is extremely ‘on message’, it’s because just keeping up with Grandage proves a challenge.

With a raft of five-star reviews, Privates On Parade has just launched the first season of work from Grandage’s new production company, founded when he left the Donmar Warehouse after an extremely successful decade at the helm of the tiny theatre with a huge reputation. When we meet, the show is still in rehearsals and Grandage is trying to balance preparing the Simon Russell Beale-led production with promoting the show, the season and the new company. We grab 20 precious minutes in a lunch break and Grandage, to his credit, tries to cram as much in as possible – chat, not food – talking fast enough to leave me trailing in his verbal wake.

“They’re pushing me in rooms like I’ve never been pushed before,” he says of this pressing period of time. The triple threat of talking points has intrigued a theatre industry for whom Grandage is as close to a golden boy as you can get. Everything he touched during his decade at the Donmar seemed to draw both critical and public acclaim, from transfers and tours of successful productions including Piaf and John Logan’s Red to enough awards to embarrass Meryl Streep’s mantelpiece, from the Donmar West End season that brought the small venue’s ideology to the larger Wyndham’s theatre to the seasons at the Trafalgar Studios giving the Donmar’s Resident Assistant Directors a chance to showcase their skills. Even his freelance work on Evita. Grandage is a director who makes you take notice of every decision he makes.

This is why, of course, everyone is so eager to know about his hopes and ambitions for the new company. After 15 years at the helm of a building – Grandage led Sheffield Theatres before his move to London – the fast-talking director admits he wanted the option to do “anything anywhere”.

“This is something I envisage doing for the rest of my life. I have no wishes to do anything else, having explored theatres and learned so much from working in theatres,” he says, delivering a blow to anyone who hoped to see him, as has often been rumoured and discussed, replacing Nicholas Hytner when the current Director of the National Theatre steps down.

Grandage’s programming of the Donmar and his reputation-enhancing productions has ensured his name is raised every time there’s a discussion about future leaders of the flagship institution, though his commitment to making theatre more accessible and investing in the future of the industry are just as important. These values were there in his work with Assistant Directors at the Donmar and in the venue’s pricing structures. They’re there to see again in the grand plan for the Michael Grandage Company. “Anything where we can reach as many people as possible with good theatre,” is how Grandage describes the steps he is taking.

“Nobody goes into the theatre to make money. That’s insane.”

These include the much talked about £10 seats – 100,000 of them are available across all productions in the 14 month season – associate director, designer, lighting designer and sound designer schemes, and a yet-to-launch website aimed at publicising the wide range of jobs available in the theatre industry.

These altruistic aims have dropped like a one tonne Acme weight on the interest of some theatrical investors. Instead, Grandage is working with people “who might be interested in investing knowing their return is slightly diminished in favour of all these rather exciting initiatives. It’s meant not going with certain people because they’re in theatre investments for a full return. At least they don’t pretend they’re not, but that’s a choice for them.”

It’s hard to disguise the hint of disdain Grandage seems to have for such people. Though I’m sure he’s not doing too badly out of his work, it is clearly his passion for the industry that drives him. “Nobody goes into the theatre to make money,” he tells me. “That’s insane. Theatre doesn’t pay at any level. There’s no guarantee of anything. You have to do theatre because you love it. Knowing that and knowing there isn’t a focus on earning any more money than enough to keep our offices, keep us in employment, keep training posts going, it makes you focus on why you do it and that’s why one returns to training, to access and trying to make theatre something that constantly renews itself.

“When I was young, growing up in Cornwall, through really accessible pricing I was given access to touring theatre and I was able to find something through those experiences that I thought I wanted to engage in. Theatre. I was one of so many young people growing up who, when asked ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ didn’t really know. Theatre absolutely brought a focus to me and without it I wouldn’t be sitting here with you now. If I can open up the theatre to a lot of young people knowing that just one person might have the experience I had, then we’ve got another recruit into the industry and that in itself is exciting for me. The £10 seats don’t have to be about young people, they need to be about people who can’t afford to come to the theatre. The nice thing about the equation is that young people and cheap seats do go together.

“Similarly education, we’re going to focus much more on telling people about jobs that are available in the industry. I think one of the problems when you talk about jobs in the theatre is everybody assumes it’s about acting because that’s the visible job. They should know ushers exist. They should know box office jobs exist. Marketing people, development people, casting directors, fight directors, choreographers. We can use our new company, and a new website especially for young people looking for theatre jobs, to educate people about everything available.”

When the Michael Grandage Company’s first project was announced, interested observers could have been forgiven for asking ‘What’s different?’ He had left a theatre where he programmed five or six shows a year and created a company programming five successive West End shows – Simon Russell Beale in Privates On Parade, Ben Whishaw and Judi Dench in new play Peter And Alice, Daniel Radcliffe in The Cripple Of Inishmaan, Sheridan Smith and David Walliams in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Jude Law in Henry V – in 14 months.

The difference, he assures me, is this is a one off season. He may have kicked off his new company with what he knows, but in 2014 he will direct a film written by Red and Peter And Alice playwright Logan, after which he may well return to the theatre, but not necessarily with a full season of shows.

“People need a headline to go beyond a play”

But the first season is important, as everyone is watching to see what will happen. The first production even more so. Luckily for Grandage – well, more by judgement than luck – that first show, Privates On Parade, picked up superb reviews when it opened earlier this month. The decision to open with Peter Nichols’ comedy about life in a song and dance unit during the Second World War came about partly because, having directed a short run of it at the Donmar a decade ago Grandage felt he had unfinished business with the play, and partly because leading man Beale yearned for a touch of lightness to finish a year in which he had previously played Stalin and Timon of Athens.

Picking shows to fit the actors is a theme that runs throughout the season. Radcliffe wanted an Irish play. Law, now a regular Grandage collaborator, wanted to return to Shakespeare. The channel-swimming, children’s book-writing, national treasure Walliams arrived for discussions with a notebook of ideas for plays he would like to perform.

The cache names themselves, Grandage mentions, might also be considered as a theme and have been seen that way in the past at the Donmar. “We always had people who could act,” he argues. “They were never people who haven’t got a good pedigree on stage. I’m going back to that group who like stage or who have a long-term relationship with stage, people who are passionate about doing it and have done it in the past and have proven themselves as actors.

“900 seats a night for eight performances a week is a lot of seats to fill. You can’t just announce a play you’re passionate about, because you may not get the cast you want and then you’re stumped. People need a headline to go beyond a play.”

For many of us, Grandage’s name alone is enough to sell a production. But if we’re honest, headline casting helps the hype and anticipation, doesn’t it? The good news is that there is a collection of performers Grandage was in conversation with who, for one reason or another, didn’t work with this season. They’ll be back in some fashion in the future along with the long list of stars eager to work with the inspirational director. Quite what those projects might be, however, is still up for grabs. “Maybe a play in America, maybe here, two plays together?” Grandage muses. However it happens you can put your money – maybe £10, maybe more – on one thing, any project will be filled with passion.

With that, our short meeting is brought to a close. Rehearsals are about to begin once more and Grandage has to dash off. In truth, it’s a purposeful stroll though it feels like a sprint to get to his next appointment. I couldn’t swear to it, but I’m sure I heard a “meep meep” as he went.