Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Matthew Warchus on the Old Vic

Published April 20, 2015

Oscar winner and darling of London theatre, Kevin Spacey has left big shoes for new incoming Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus to fill. The Hollywood star has just been given an Olivier Award for his work at the Southwark venue, for Larry’s sake!

But if you’ve had a chance to glance at Warchus’ first announcement from the historic theatre – if you haven’t, you can read about it here – you’ll see he’s already slipping quite comfortably into those size 10s.

Opening with a brand new play, bringing Rob Brydon, Timothy Spall and Ralph Fiennes to the Vic, creating a musical commissioning programme, partnering with Sonia Friedman and Scott Rudin; far from wallowing in the wake of Spacey, Warchus has made a big statement with an eclectic opening season and blueprint for the future.

On the eve of his first announcement, Warchus, who also directed the multi-award-winning Matilda The Musical, shared his thoughts on saying ‘Yes’ to The Old Vic, his plans and the much-anticipated musical adaptation of Groundhog Day:

Over the years I’ve been asked to run several buildings. I was in the habit of saying “No.” For some reason, I don’t actually know why, this time I paused. I think that it has something to do with the fact I have some affiliation with this theatre. It’s my favourite theatre in the world.

The Old Vic is neither the National Theatre nor the RSC, with all of their institutional heft and auditoria, an enormous life-consuming thing, nor is it more of a hip boutique theatre like the Donmar Warehouse or the Almeida, which is extremely manageable, but your auditorium’s so small that only certain people can see the show. It’s not a commercial theatre that has to make profit for investors, nor is it a theatre that uses public subsidy and has to fulfil certain criteria in order to get it. It’s big enough to be truly populist but without being overwhelmingly cumbersome and enormous. It’s part establishment but also a bit iconoclastic and goes its own away. All of those things make it unique and chime with quite a lot of things I’m interested in.

I’ve actually been in this office and this building most days since October and even before that. From July I was here meeting everybody in the theatre, talking to them about the theatre, what they thought worked well, what not so well, just to understand the beginnings of how the building is functioning.

I made a decision early on to try to announce a season of work. They’ve never done that before. This idea to announce a year at a time was designed to try to confidently describe what The Old Vic is. It’s easier to see what it is when you can look at it and see a bunch of productions, partnerships and ideas; harder to see what it is when it’s just the next show looming over the horizon.

I wanted to increase the number of productions in a year. Shortening the runs means more work and more contrasting kinds of work. But by increasing the number of shows you decrease the number of weeks that each show runs for. That suddenly means that instead of trying to look for shows that can do 12 weeks in a 1,000 seat theatre – and that excludes a whole lot of work that you can’t possibly risk – suddenly you’ve got a five week run here and a five week run there and it’s legitimate and viable to programme a bit more adventurously in those areas. On the other hand, when you’ve got something that’s a bit more of a sure thing, you’ve only got six or seven weeks for it, which is a bit of a problem.

It’s hard, that opening show, because it’s unavoidably symbolic. It’s just another show in the season; it could be good, it might not work, but all eyes are on it. I’ve been trying to find a way of setting up Future Conditional [Tamsin Oglesby’s new play that opens the season] somewhere for the last three years and I really care about it. It’s not written to be done by young people but, apart from Rob Brydon, I’m doing it with a large group of 23, 24 other actors in their early 20s in a kind of youth theatre style. It’s a very worthy, chatty, argumentative play about education. It’s got politics in it, it’s funny, it’s got something to say.

You’ve got to have a big reason for doing anything on stage. It doesn’t always have to be an obvious political reason. I think preachy plays are a bit dull, but debatey plays are very exciting. It’s something theatre can do really well and should do. I think we will end up sometimes being more political. But more than that, I want each production to have a point in being done. We’re not a lending library where you simply turn up and collect famous titles.

I have a list of directors that I really like and want to come and direct here. There’s a pretty equal number of men and women on that list. The real world situation that occurred as we scrambled to put together the first season was that unfortunately the four women that I offered slots to weren’t able to take them. With a bit more lead time into the second and third season you should see much more of a balance.

All of these things start with “Let’s make it as equal as possible” as long as everybody comes under the umbrella of “I love them and I think they’re brilliant.” At the point at which you try and make it equal whether it’s great or not I think you’ve got your priorities wrong.

Tim Minchin and I share an interest in a particular kind of musical; a musical with heart and brains and not just an opportunity for empty sentiment and manipulation or empty spectacle. I love spectacle as long as it’s harnessed to something of substance. We’ve made this ground-breaking commitment to place 15 or so commissions for new musicals over five years. That will shake down to a smaller number of actual shows, but there will be a musical on stage every year, maybe two musicals some years. I hope to convert some people who don’t like musicals as well as living up to the expectations of people who know a lot about them.

There is no formula for writing a hit show of any kind. You stumble on it. We love the story of Groundhog Day, we think it’s smart, funny, we think it’s got something to say, but it needs to be its own thing and different from the film to justify it being done at all. It needs to have integrity. In the back of our minds, of course we’re thinking it will be embarrassing if people don’t like it. We think that all the time, but all you’ve got is your own taste and judgement.