Josie Rourke outlines her vision for the Donmar, interview
31st January 2012
Josie Rourke’s first production at the Donmar Warehouse – a revival of The Recruiting Officer – plays to the intimate venue’s strengths. First published 31 Jan 2012.
Josie Rourke trod the boards just once as a teenager – while studying for her A-levels in Eccles, Greater Manchester – and she swiftly established that she was rubbish. She recalls the moment of revelation perfectly: “I was standing in the middle of the stage in the drama studio playing Olivia in Twelfth Night very badly and I remember thinking very clearly: ‘I’m awful, he’s really bad, she’s standing in the wrong place and that light should not be green.’ Few young people have the self-awareness to dash their own thespian aspirations – fewer still discover an inner voice that prompts them, quite unbidden, to direct the first play they’re in.
If you hear that inner voice then the moral of the story is that you should pay heed to it because, fast forward to today, and Rourke, now 35, is the new artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, one of the most prestigious theatres in Britain, never mind the premier off-West End space in the centre of town.
It’s quite an achievement for the lass from Salford who says she never saw a play in a London theatre until the age of 18. Her rise has been, by any standards, remarkable: after a period of assisting, she got her first proper paid directing gig just 10 years ago at the Donmar, directing Frame 312, as part of Sam Mendes’s 2002 “American Imports” season.
Her accumulation of experience and plaudits since then has been assiduous – without ever seeming pushy or flashy. Whether it’s doing Shakespeare at the RSC or in the West End (she gave us the David Tennant and Catherine Tate Much Ado last summer), reviving a neglected Scottish classic of tenement life (Men Should Weep) at the National, or running – brilliantly, and in the teeth of funding travails and building upheavals – the Bush for four years, nothing has seemed able to faze her. If she cracks the Donmar then other peaks loom into view: she might even become the first woman to run the National Theatre. All eyes will be on her, then. Might she be feeling daunted?
Not Ms Rourke. Exuding the sort of smiling confidence I imagine could warm the most inhibitingly chilly rehearsal room within minutes of arriving to take charge, she won’t countenance any attempt to coax an admission of trepidation out of her. She shoves away the mere mention of “pressure” – “That’s your word!” she retorts playfully. “It’s a theatre I’d always dreamt about running, it’s the most beautiful stage in the world, so I’m thrilled to have the job.”
She’s not intimidated by following in the gilded footsteps of Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage – whose regimes together accumulated 40 Olivier Awards. Both helped nurture her, so the Donmar “feels like home – and if no one wanted to take on theatres that were successes, we wouldn’t have a successful theatre, would we”?
Where Mendes made his name partly by putting the accent on modern American theatre – he revived Sondheim’s Assassins first off in 1992 – Grandage shifted the emphasis towards the European repertoire – his first year in 2003 gave audiences a head-rush of Dario Fo, Camus and Strindberg. And the new kid on the block? She’s starting with funny: The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar.
“The Donmar has never done a Restoration comedy,” she points out. “Even as a young assistant director I was fascinated by how one might work in that three-sided stage space. They were generally performed on a bare apron of a stage with scenic pieces rolled in to provide different backdrops.”
Far from being restrictive, this famously intimate venue – which has only 251 seats – should be a boon.
“I remember seeing a lot of Restoration comedies at the Manchester Royal Exchange, while I was growing up,” she continues. “I always used to sit on the banquette seats at the front – and the proximity of the audience to the smell and life of those plays was fantastic. When I’ve seen them recently it has been on big stages and I’ve felt quite distant from them.”
Why The Recruiting Officer (1706) in particular – with its baggy, twisty plot involving two parallel romances thrown off kilter by inheritances and a central cross-dressing element in which the young heroine, Sylvia, disguises herself as a man and nearly gets drafted into the army?
“It’s unlike a lot of Restoration plays,” she explains, “in that it’s a provincial play, not a city comedy, and there’s a Shakespearean quality to it, shades of Twelfth Night and As You Like It – which is great fun. It’s full of heart, vitality, sexuality and wit – a great celebration of life. I wanted to start with something that allowed us to celebrate that space – and maybe make people see it in a different way than they’ve seen it before.”
It might seem like an odd series of jumps to go from that to a revival of Making Noise Quietly (1986) by Yorkshire playwright Robert Holman and then The Physicists, a 1962 satire by Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
“If you want to read a theme through the first season, they’re all in some senses plays about war,” Rourke explains. “The Recruiting Officer has a dark heart – you see this country town being stripped of all its young men. Making Noise Quietly is about those people who sit on the ripples of conflict and have their lives hugely affected by them. And The Physicists is a Cold War paranoia play. It’s very funny, but there’s also a big question about whether you can you ”unthink’’ something once it has been thought.” Big questions on a small stage work well, she avers.
All kinds of plans will be unveiled in due course – but, speaking as a northerner, she says commitment to regional touring and to access in general will be key.
One of the formative episodes she remembers clearly, aside from her Damascene moment during Twelfth Night, is turning up at Cambridge to read English and “meeting people for the first time who knew what London theatre was. It’s very important for me never to forget that moment of feeling such an outsider and completely unable to take part in those conversations. I believe the big issue in the arts is going to be about opportunities – opportunities for people to work and opportunities to see work as well.”
For anyone who has ever fretted that the Donmar, at its most successful, has run the risk of becoming a boutique art-house for the cognoscenti that will surely come as rich and welcome music to the ears.