Michael Grandage profile, 2001: on the verge of greatness

27th November 2001

The Man to follow Mendes

The search is on to fill the top jobs at the Donmar and Almeida theatres. Profile of leading contender Michael Grandage. First published Daily Telegraph Nov 27, 2001.

Funny things can happen to people when they hit 30. Some rush up the wedding aisle, others set off round the world. Frank Skinner, who decided to try his luck as a stand-up comedian after someone told him he was “on the scrap-heap” at 30, neatly describes reaching that age in his autobiography as the point when you dimly hear for the first time “the shovel hitting the soil”.

For Michael Grandage, leaving his twenties was the catalyst for a complete career overhaul. An accomplished and fairly successful actor, he decided nonetheless to chuck it in: henceforth he wanted to direct. “It was a miserable existence being an actor,” he recalls, “waiting for the phone to ring, not earning enough money. I realised I didn’t have the correct temperament to stick it out year after year.” From that moment, he set about making his name anew.

And he’s never had cause to regret throwing caution to the wind. After an inevitably arduous start, Grandage now finds himself, at 39, one of Britain’s most feted directors.

He is held in such high regard that he is being widely touted as both a natural candidate to succeed Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent at the Almeida, when the pair quit next summer, and the frontrunner to take over from Sam Mendes at the Donmar, now that the Hollywood hotshot has announced his decision to step down at the end of the year.

That two of the most illustrious jobs in London theatre might be Grandage’s for the asking stems principally from the wonders he has wrought over the past three years as associate director at the Donmar Warehouse and the Sheffield Crucible, posts he secured on the back of scorching productions at the Mercury, Colchester, and the Almeida.

In Sheffield, he has been credited with spiriting an ailing regional theatre back to rude health. Numerous triumphs, including a rapturously received As You Like It with Victoria Hamilton as Rosalind, and an Edward II starring Joseph Fiennes, have conspired to turn a forlorn outpost into a theatregoer’s paradise. Reviving Richard III with Kenneth Branagh next March can only help to swell audience numbers, which have leapt under his aegis from an annual total of 240,000 to more than 390,000 last year, including a huge influx of young people.

At the Donmar, where he has become Sam Mendes’s unofficial right-hand man, he has worked yet more miracles. Stephen Sondheim’s notorious flop musical Merrily We Roll Along became the toast of the town last Christmas, subsequently picking up three Olivier Awards. And following last year’s assured revival of Passion Play, which put the neglected Bristol playwright Peter Nichols back on the map, Grandage has now been entrusted with making a seasonable sensation of Privates on Parade, Nichols’ riotous black comedy about an army entertainment unit in the Malayan jungle in 1948, not seen in the West End since 1978.

What’s the secret? Pondering his irresistible rise, during a break in rehearsal for Privates, Grandage suggests that much of it is down to his previous life as an actor.

“As far as learning how to direct is concerned, those 12 years were not wasted,” he explains. “I got to watch very good and very bad directors at work in a way that no assistant trainee could. I’m absolutely certain that I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing now without all that behind me.”

In person, Grandage displays more than a residue of thespian flamboyance. Ruffling his tufty dark brown hair in concentration, and underscoring exclamations with a camp hands-to-mouth reflex action, he could still light up a Restoration comedy. For him, negative examples in the rehearsal rooms of yore are remembered as vividly as the times spent with the likes of Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner.

“I’ve worked with directors,” he says incredulously, “who would come in on the first date of rehearsals and do it all on the hoof. They’d turn to the choreographer and designer and say [he adopts a pompous tone]: ‘It’s sort of a bit something, isn’t it?’ All this abstract dialogue took place and the end-result was always a mess.”

For Grandage, nothing is left to chance. “I assemble everything in great detail beforehand, but not so tightly that you can’t allow the actors to open the play up further in performance.” He has acquired an impressive entourage of regular collaborators including the set-designer – and his personal partner – Christopher Oram, lighting designer Hartley Kemp and choreographer Peter Darling, who made Billy Elliot so fleet of foot.

Oram, in particular, has made minimalism a striking hallmark of Grandage’s presentation style, helping achieve a feeling of space and light that the director, born and bred in Penzance, says he has in his blood.

“One of the things that gives me most pleasure,” Grandage beams, “is on the first day of rehearsals, when I say to the cast: ‘Here is the set and look, there’s nothing between you and the audience – it’s going to be actor-led.”

You’d think that with so much acting experience behind him, Grandage might slip into the role every actor dreads: the director who tries to show them how it’s done.

Ian McDiarmid, who starred in Grandage’s Almeida revival of Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma and Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, confirms however that actor-led means precisely that. “He understands what goes on in the brain when you’re trying to get to grips with a part. He believes you should act at the speed of thought – making each thought lead to the next – but he knows that this has to come from the actor: his job is to persuade and cajole but never to demonstrate.”

Peter Nichols, who also started out treading the boards, concurs. “He’s very hot on inflections, and rhythms. He’s absolutely tenacious about detail. He’ll say to an actor, ‘You’re missing something there,’ but he won’t tell them what that something is.”

Grandage’s hand can be seen most obviously in the way he keeps a story bowling along.
Time and again, critics have praised his seamless transformations. “I’m obsessed with continuity,” he admits. “I was brought up watching plays with a blackout at the end of every scene, and each time you lost the audience. The need to avoid blackouts has driven everything I’ve done. You have to join up scenes, but not necessarily in an obvious way.”

With similar ease, Grandage has shaved off the unnecessary longueurs in his new career as a director. Things are now moving very fast indeed, and he faces making some tough decisions over the coming weeks as to his next step. He has committed to Sheffield until 2003 and for the time being will continue to divide his time between the 250-seat Donmar and the 900-seat Crucible.

Instinctively drawn to work of a markedly theatrical nature, and thus at home with much of the classical repertoire as well as with such arch-experimentalists as Nichols, he knows he has yet to direct a new play. Plans are afoot to have a go. “I’m still learning my way into the job,” he says. He frowns, looking for the righ words, before reemerging with a grin. “It all feels terribly young and early.”


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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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