As Michael Grandage steps down from the Donmar Warehouse after a decade in charge, Caroline Bishop looks back at his career.
When Richard II opened at the Donmar Warehouse on 6 December, the critics were quick to point out that Shakespeare’s tale of a king relinquishing his crown was a fitting final production for Donmar Artistic Director Michael Grandage.
The director, who has been at the helm of the bijou Covent Garden venue for 10 years, leaves behind a kingdom that has produced many riches under his reign. With a reputation and clout far outweighing its size – it has just 250 seats – the Donmar has, under Grandage, built on the legacy left by previous Artistic Director Sam Mendes and become a destination venue for both actors and audiences. “It must have been a daunting task taking over from the theatrical golden boy Sam Mendes,” said Charles Spencer in his Telegraph review of Richard II, “but Grandage has equalled and sometimes surpassed his predecessor.”
He adds: “Grandage is a director who always seems to put his own ego to one side, content to serve the play and his invariably excellent casts, rather than drawing flashy attention to his own talent.”
Indeed, though much of the Donmar’s last decade of success is undoubtedly down to his leadership and the clear, unfussy style of his own productions there, Grandage is very much a team player.
Perhaps that’s partly due to his own experience as an actor. Born in Yorkshire but raised in Cornwall, Grandage attended London’s Central School of Speech and Drama in the early 1980s before embarking on a 12-year career as an actor. It wasn’t until 1995 that he directed his first professional production, The Last Yankee, at Colchester’s Mercury theatre.
Actress Una Stubbs, who worked with Grandage on his second production in Colchester, The Deep Blue Sea, said she knew then he would go on to great things. Speaking to Official London Theatre when appearing in The Family Reunion at the Donmar in 2008, she said: “We all knew. Maybe not as enormous so quickly, but we all knew. He’s just wonderful. There was something about him – I saw his first production which was so special, The Last Yankee. I just knew I was in safe hands.”
“Grandage has equalled and sometimes surpassed his predecessor” (Charles Spencer)
After Colchester, his talent was quickly recognised at Sheffield theatres, where he became first Associate Director and then, in 1999, Artistic Director. During his time there, Grandage oversaw more than 40 works and directed stars including Joseph Fiennes, Derek Jacobi and Diana Rigg.
By this time he had become an Associate Director at the Donmar, where he directed Good, Passion Play and the Olivier Award-winning Merrily We Roll Along. In 2002 Grandage was asked to succeed the departing Sam Mendes as Donmar Artistic Director. For three years he remained Artistic Director in Sheffield as well, juggling the two positions along with independent directing work. The extent of his success in this overwhelming task was seen at the 2006 Olivier Awards at which his Sheffield production of Don Carlos (which transferred to London) and his West End co-production of Guys And Dolls received nominations, as did Phyllida Lloyd’s Donmar production of Mary Stuart.
For the past decade, Grandage has programmed the Donmar with a mix of European classics, contemporary American and British repertoire, new writing and boutique musicals. As well as welcoming a raft of new directing and performing talent, Grandage has led by example, directing productions including The Vortex, Caligula – for which he won the 2004 Best Director Olivier Award – Grand Hotel, The Wild Duck, The Chalk Garden, Othello, Betrayal and King Lear.
Even before Grandage’s arrival the Donmar was a favourite venue of many actors, but that feeling has only been enhanced by the sense of family he has engendered during his time there. “There’s a real sense of the building,” said Eddie Redmayne when appearing there for the first time in John Logan’s Red. “You meet everyone, you meet the press, you meet the runners, up to the producers… there is a real sense of company.”
Like many, it didn’t take much persuasion for Redmayne to join that company. “It was the dream job. When Michael offered it to me, I had to stop myself from just leaping across the room going ‘YES!’ It was one of the greatest offers ever.”
That production is an example of the international reach of Grandage’s tenure. As well as establishing a UK touring programme, Grandage has transferred several Donmar productions to Broadway, such as Red, which won six Tony Awards in 2010 including Best Director for Grandage, Frost/Nixon, which was subsequently made into a blockbuster film, and Hamlet, starring Jude Law. He has also taken Donmar productions to Denmark, Australia and Argentina. As a result, this tiny London venue now has considerable international kudos. In 2009 Charles Isherwood wrote in the New York Times: “If you haven’t been to the Donmar, you are missing one of the great theatergoing experiences available today. I would unhesitatingly recommend making it a top priority on a London visit, no matter what happens to be playing.”
Grandage has expanded the Donmar’s reach within London, too. In 2008 he signed up Law, Jacobi, Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh to headline four Donmar productions at the Wyndham’s theatre under the banner Donmar West End. Crucially, these retained the low ticket prices of the Donmar itself in order to open up its work to a wider audience.
“He’s just been a really amazing supporter of my work, an amazing mentor” (Jamie Lloyd)
He has also long been a champion of new talent, fostering the careers of young directors including Jamie Lloyd, Josie Rourke – who succeeds him at the Donmar – Rob Ashford and Jonathan Munby. Last year he established the Donmar Trafalgar season to showcase the work of the Donmar’s Resident Assistant Directors and the success of the scheme was reflected in the nomination of one of those productions, Les Parents Terribles, for an Olivier Award in 2011.
Talking to Official London Theatre when directing Passion for the Donmar in 2010, Jamie Lloyd, whose career was kick-started by assisting Grandage on his West End production of Guys And Dolls, said: “He’s just been a really amazing supporter of my work, an amazing mentor. In Sheffield he was always the one who was championing young directors. He absolutely is all about the next generation, more than any other director I think.”
Now, perhaps, it is time for Grandage to champion himself. On announcing his departure from the Donmar last October, Grandage said: “I am now keen to have a career that moves away from being in charge of a building in order to develop my work as a director in other ways.”
Having made his National Theatre debut with Danton’s Death and his opera debut with Billy Budd at Glyndebourne, both in 2010, it is clear that despite the loss to the Donmar, Grandage’s departure signals the start of a rich new period of work, an exciting prospect indeed – not just for him but for British theatre. Along with former Donmar Executive Producer James Bierman he has established the Michael Grandage Company to produce work from 2012 onwards, and the theatre world is impatient to know exactly what that work will be.
As for the Donmar, Rourke has a hard act to follow. As Rupert Evans, who appeared there in 2009’s Life Is A Dream, said: “I love working at the Donmar because of the space. It’s like no other theatre that I’ve ever worked in in Britain. There’s something unique about the Donmar, something intimate and yet theatrical… it’s an extraordinary place, a one off I think.” That unique space will remain after Grandage has left, but it will be for Rourke to ensure it continues to flourish as it has under her predecessors.