Michael Grandage interview: the West End revolution starts here

27th September 2012

Michael Grandage: ‘I thrive on pressure’

Having only just stepped down as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, Michael Grandage is back with his own company – and a star-studded season in the West End. First published in the Daily Telegraph, Sept 27, 2012. 

What do you do when you’ve just emerged from the pressure-cooker environment of running one of London’s most prestigious theatres? For many directors, the temptation to head far from the madding crowd must be overwhelming.

After his testing time at the National Theatre, Richard Eyre lay low for a while, readjusting to freelance life. I remember bumping in to Jonathan Kent in Tokyo not long after he had stepped down as joint head of the Almeida and his joie de vivre at being liberated from the grind of running a building – for all its successes – was palpable. Eyre wrote a book on 20th-century theatre, Kent moved into opera, both became less obviously “visible”.

Not so with Michael Grandage. Since bowing out as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse at the end of last year, which he ran with consistent, award-winning élan, he too has written a book, “A Decade at the Donmar”, which beautifully chronicles that golden era. He has also managed to direct an opera (The Marriage of Figaro at Glyndebourne), mount Evita on Broadway and restage John Logan’s hit play about Mark Rothko, Red, in LA.

But barely had theatregoers begun to mourn his absence than he’s burst back on the scene in high style, launching his own outfit – the Michael Grandage Company – to perform a star-studded five-play season at the Noel Coward Theatre.

It begins in December with Privates on Parade. This is the first time that Peter Nichols’s quick-fire, song-charged tragicomedy about those who entertained the troops in South East Asia during the Malayan Emergency will have been in the West End (discounting Grandage’s 2001 Donmar revival) since its Aldwych premiere in 1977. Simon Russell Beale, fresh from Timon of Athens at the National, steps into the camp-as-Christmas shoes of Captain Terri Dennis, a role first taken over the top by Dennis Quilley.

Fast forward a year and the more sober but no less tantalising prospect of Jude Law as Henry V awaits. In between, it’s one casting coup after another. Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw join forces for Peter and Alice, John Logan’s account of the 1932 meeting between Alice Liddell Hargreaves and Peter Llewelyn Davies (the “original” Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan). Daniel Radcliffe, in it for the long haul after Harry Potter, returns home and to his Irish roots to lead The Cripple of Inishmaan, Martin McDonagh’s uproarious 1930s-set comedy about an Aran island lad who dreams of Hollywood stardom. Then David Walliams shows us his Bottom while Sheridan Smith reveals her Titania in an autumnal rush of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

As if that wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Grandage is sprinkling an added layer of glamour onto theatreland next month with a week of classy poetry readings at the Arts Theatre. Luminaries such as Melvyn Bragg, David Hare and Tom Stoppard will read paeans to poets by the late Josephine Hart, the multifaceted novelist, with Jacobi, Rosamund Pike and Dominic West among the actors reciting choice verse.

Grandage is working alongside his quiet, steadfast executive producer James Bierman, who also ran the ship with him at the Donmar, but even so it’s plain that he’s about as busy as it’s humanly possible to be. He must thrive on pressure, then?

“Yes I do,” he says, sitting in his plush new office on Shaftesbury Avenue. Above his head hangs a poster for his hit 2003 production of Caligula, bearing the words “The impossible is what I want”. “Recouping by the beach – that’s not very me,” he says. “I don’t want to go in too much depth into the motivating factors that drive me,” he adds, with a laugh. “I will go and see somebody eventually!” Clearly, though, high stakes bring out the best in him. He remains, at 50, incredibly boyish and animated.

Bierman and he talk in inspiring terms about the way they’re bringing the affordability ethos of their Donmar days into the commercial sector along with Grandage’s acclaimed aesthetic, banishing at a stroke the complaint, aired – much to his annoyance during sell-out stretches under his regime – that no one could get in.

More than 100,000 tickets – many for very good seats – are being made available at just a tenner, adding to the tricky financial juggling act behind the scenes. There will a free performance of every production and a strong educational strand, too, which the stars have all signed up to.

“You often hear this terrible phrase ‘box-ticking’,” Grandage exclaims, “but those were the bits we really enjoyed.”

The free performance of Jude Law’s Hamlet, presented as part of the 2008-9 “Donmar in the West End” season, the precursor to this venture, was “the best night of our lives”, he continues, “because there were all these people who’d never been into a theatre before, seeing something that had altered them when they came out.”

Though he now stands at the heart of the theatre establishment – he got a CBE in last year’s honours – Grandage remains the embodiment of the outsider who got lucky and wants everyone else to share his luck.

Brought up in Penzance – his early exposure to theatre confined to tents and leisure centres – he didn’t become a director until his mid-30s after ploughing a frustrating path as a jobbing actor. Although his future plans involve everything from bringing other directors on board to branching out into film, his mission right now is simple.

“The West End used to be the centre of theatre in this country to which everyone flocked. My thinking is: can’t it still have the excitement and sense of event it used to have? What we want to do is shift the axis of the West End so that it feels like this is where it’s all happening again.” He grins. “I don’t see any reason why it can’t work!”

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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