Michael Grandage: ‘I love getting the best out of actors’
Michael Grandage has, for as long as I’ve known him, been something of a life force: not content with running one theatre (the Sheffield Crucible, which he took over in 1999 just three years after he started directing), he took on a second (the Donmar Warehouse in 2002, from Sam Mendes), and then ran both for a time in the early noughties. Next, not content with only running the Donmar, he established a West End residency for the company’s work at Wyndham’s, and a separate offshoot to showcase work by the younger former resident assistant directors of the theatre at Trafalgar Studios.
Also under the Donmar banner, Grandage directed a West End revival of Guys and Dolls that subsequently toured the UK and Australia; he juggled those responsibilities with freelance gigs elsewhere that included a West End revival of Evita (subsequently also on Broadway), a production of Danton’s Death at the National Theatre, and his operatic directing debut at Glyndebourne and New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.
After he left the Donmar, following a garlanded decade-long tenure in 2012, he formed his own independent production company, Michael Grandage Company, co-founded with his former Donmar executive director James Bierman. It made an immediate splash in the West End by staging a five-play, celebrity-laden season at the Noel Coward Theatre, with productions respectively featuring Simon Russell Beale, Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, Sheridan Smith and David Walliams, Jude Law, and Daniel Radcliffe, with Radcliffe then transferring to Broadway in the company’s revival of Martin McDonagh’s The Cripple of Inishmaan. But it wasn’t just about stars; it was also, crucially, about making the West End more affordable for younger audiences, with 25% of the total inventory of tickets available at every performance sold at just £10.
Last year he made his film directing debut with Genius, starring Law, Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, set for release in the next 12 months. And now he’s back in the West End, first with Kidman returning to the London stage in the UK premiere of new play Photograph 51, then with Dawn French reprising her first solo show 30 Million Minutes that Grandage directed on the road last year.
When I meet him at his Shaftesbury Avenue offices – high above the Gielgud Theatre, reached by six flights of steps – on a Sunday morning, he’s just returned from a week at a house he owns in Cornwall, where he grew up, and is beginning rehearsals the very next morning for Photograph 51. He took my coffee order before I got to his office via text message, and has bought it at the branch of Costa across the street, along with a chocolate twist we share, that will feature in the conversation imminently.
He recently turned 53, and his appetite for work and innovation is still unflagging. “As I got into my 50s, I didn’t just want to get comfortable,” he explains, “but I needed to start pushing myself into a different place and get out of my comfort zone.”
Hence making his film directing debut: “Fuck me, was I out of my comfort zone! I’d never done anything like it before. Tomorrow at the meet and greet for the play, there’ll be 45 people, though there are only six actors in the play; but for the film, there were 345 people sitting at trestle tables looking through the script on the first day. And people would keep asking me to make decisions about a costume or a prop; usually that’s something where I’d just say, ‘ask Christopher’.”
Christopher is Christopher Oram, the Olivier and Tony-award-winning designer who is Grandage’s most frequent artistic collaborator and also his life partner, with whom he shares a home in Shepherd’s Bush. Oram didn’t work on the film, but he has been an integral part of Grandage’s professional and then personal life ever since Grandage directed his very first stage production, Arthur Miller’s The Last Yankee at Colchester’s Mercury Theatre back in 1996. The story he tells of their first meeting and subsequent fast-evolving partnership is revealing of his process as well as his passions.
“I’d asked Mark Thompson to design my first show, but he didn’t have the time and suggested I met one of his assistants, both of whom he said were good. So I met Christopher at a bar in Seven Dials and he brought his portfolio, but I never looked at it. I told him I had no idea what we did next, so he said I should talk about the play, and he’d do a model based on our discussion of what I saw its central themes to be. A week later, I went to his small flat in Shepherd’s Bush and looked at a model that was so beautiful, I swear I fell in love with both him and the model at the same time. It was the most glorious thing I’d ever seen – a total distillation of our discussion. And I thought, if this is what directing is about, it’s the most amazing thing, because we’d talked about this and there it was in 3D!”
Over subsequent repeated train journeys from Liverpool Street to Colchester together, they discovered something else about each other: “I come from a very strong creative background, being brought up in Penzance and Newlyn, where the whole British post-war abstract movement started. And though Christopher’s aesthetic is not related to that movement, it is as strong as mine and is entirely compatible, and that’s the importance of the visual.
“Everything you see is a very potent force, and to find a partner who understands and shares that meant that there was a kind of inevitability we had to share everything. He always asks whenever we go to theatre if there’s a point of view to what we’re seeing.”
And that’s exactly what Grandage strives to provide with every production he directs. It must, above all, have both a point and a point of view. But he is equally big, as a producer, on strategy and attention to detail.
As we talk about his return to the West End now, for instance, with a stand-alone project rather than a season, he explains: “If I’d done another season straight away, there becomes an expectation that every time you do a piece of theatre you’re doing a season, and before I know it, I’m back at the Donmar. But I wanted to move away from that model; it was exciting to be released from needing to come up with five plays a year for 10 years, which can have its problems as well as its positives.
“One of the central aims of setting up this company was to be much freer creatively, so that I was able to go straight from that opening season of theatre to do a film, and the next thing is a stand-alone project. The next thing we do may be a play on its own on Broadway that we’ve not taken from here; or it might then be that I do another film. You can only stay nimble as a company if you don’t do the same thing every time and get yourself into a routine that brings with it a level of expectation from the audience and critics.”
He and Bierman, however, certainly made a splash with their opening season. “The reason we did a season to launch the company was to state who we were and what we stood for as a company.” It proved to be both a commercial and artistic success – more than 390,000 people saw the shows, and most importantly some 120,000 of them were reckoned to be first-time theatregoers. The latter was, he says, absolutely central to the aims of the company: “You could almost say we set the company up in theatre terms to achieve a specific aim, which was to change the demographics of the West End audience and get young people into the theatre.”
He expanded on this in a separate newspaper interview in the Daily Telegraph last year: “The West End audience, I suspect, is best defined as predominantly middle-aged, middle-class, white. We wanted to make sure that we contributed in some way to the shifting of that demographic in favour of younger people. If you don’t do anything about that, there won’t be any West End left because there will be nobody to play to. Unless you start a lifelong relationship with younger people about the theatre, it’s going to stagnate.”
Today, he tells me that part of this mission is very personal: “It came from growing up in Cornwall and having access to the theatre that allowed me to go into the profession. Without it I wouldn’t be here talking to you, so it comes from something deep, past and personal, and is absolutely at the core of this company. In our first season of five plays, 25% of all house seats were £10, which turned into more than 100,000 seats. And now across the 11-week run of Photograph 51, that’ll turn into more than 10,000 seats.”
The company is entirely unsubsidised, but he says this is achieved by a different kind of subsidy: “There’s a group of people who can afford top price and premium prices, and they’re subsidising the 25% who are paying £10.” And according to the data being collected, it is definitely working: “The tickets are going to young people, though we don’t ask for passports or means testing. I remember Ron Cook telling the company on the first day of rehearsals for Henry V, ‘I think I’m the oldest person in the company, and when we did Hamlet at Wyndham’s, it makes a difference to us when 25% of the audience is younger people. The energy in the room is so different when you walk out on the stage. It buzzes in a different way’.”
Thanks to Grandage’s example, the West End itself is starting to buzz in a different way: first Jamie Lloyd – a Grandage protege at the Donmar who became his resident director on Guys and Dolls, before being given his own shows that included Sondheim’s Passion – established his own company at Trafalgar Studios, and Kenneth Branagh is soon to follow suit with a season at the Garrick. It has also been announced that after Jonathan Church departs from Chichester, he’ll establish a West End foothold, with the promise of a home at a Delfont Mackintosh Theatre. Is imitation the sincerest form of flattery?
“I love it – I’ve not got a problem with it. They’re different plays and different actors in most cases, and if it means the West End is starting to fill with quality pieces of theatre – less Thriller, more Winter’s Tale – then I say, bring it on!”
The latest piece to follow that brief, he hopes, is Photograph 51, which emerged out of discussions first initiated between Grandage and Nicole Kidman about three and a half years ago. “We were put together by our agents giving each other our personal numbers, and we had a conversation in which I rang her and said I’d like to work with her. I suggested that she’d be brilliant in The Lady from the Sea or Hedda Gabler, but she said she just wanted to do a new play. In that case, I replied, I’d set about looking. She told me she didn’t mind waiting – and promised that if I found the right one, she’d do it.
“The opportunity to work together was actually the film Genius, for which Jude Law and Colin Firth were already signed up. She was sent the script by her agent, and came to see me when I was rehearsing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Jerwood Space, and pitched very beautifully why she wanted to play the part.”
All of this was highly unusual: “Too often a director spends too much of their life trying to convince people to be in things; so it was lovely to meet an actor who was convincing me that she wanted to do something.” Photograph 51 was also already on the cards, so “much of the filming was spent discussing the play as well”.
The play had come to Grandage by an unsolicited general submission from an agent, and when he read it, he immediately thought of Kidman and sent it to her with a note saying, “Is this what we’ve been looking for for the last four years?” They did a reading, and discovered that, yes, it was: a play written by a woman about a strong woman, based on the true story of Rosalind Franklin, a scientist who in the 1950s had photographed DNA for the first time – but never got credit for it.
“It’s a true and terrible story of injustice, in which this woman scientist who was entirely in a man’s world competed in a race to discover the secret of life. Nobody knew how DNA was made up, and she took a series of photographs of which number 51 was a perfect example of a double helix, and showed scientists how it worked for the first time.”
“It works a bit like this chocolate swirl we’re eating,” he adds, referring to the snack he’d bought. “You don’t have to put this in the interview – they’ll think we’ve gone mad.” I think it just proves that Grandage has an instinctive knack for making difficult ideas tangible (and tasty). “The photographs she took enabled two scientists, Francis Crick and James Watson, working in another lab, to build a model based on what they showed, and they went on to win the Nobel prize. But her research and photographs are now believed to be the source of everything they did. Another tragedy is that she was dead at 37 from ovarian cancer, because of her exposure to the X-rays when she took the photographs.”
Kidman follows, of course, in a long line of star names he has worked with. “But I don’t want people to think that my seasons can only work with huge stars. I want to do what I did at Sheffield and the Donmar, where we created a brand so that people knew that whenever they saw anything there it would be a very good standard of performance, and even if they didn’t enjoy the play, it would be well acted, and beautifully designed and executed.”
He also, though, wants to continue to grow and deepen his relationship with some actors. “I want to grow old with Jude as a creative person in my life,” he says admiringly of his experiences of working with Jude Law. Grandage was himself an actor for 12 years before becoming a director, and tells me, “I love actors – and I love being the person who can get the best performance out of an actor. As a theatregoer, sitting in the dark, the thing I engage with most is an extraordinary performance.”
As an artistic director, he discovered a skill, as well as satisfaction from something beyond facilitating his own shows – becoming a producer of other people’s work. “The moment you invite another director to work on a play you’ve chosen, and are part of the casting process and choosing the creative team, that is a producer’s job. We’re in the process of talking to another director now to do a play for us. And I’ve loved going beyond just being in a rehearsal room and directing a group of actors in my own productions.”
He also plans to think outside the box in considering where the work appears. Though he’s very happy to have an ongoing relationship with Cameron Mackintosh – “he runs the most beautiful, best kept, maintained and staffed theatres in London” – he also wants to follow the examples of Ian McDiarmid and Jonathan Kent’s regime at the Almeida (under whose auspices he made his London directorial debut), who took the Almeida brand to temporary found spaces in King’s Cross and the Gainsborough Studios.
As Nicholas Hytner – for whom Grandage worked regularly as an actor – prepares to launch his own company in London too, it’s a time when many of London’s leading directors are finding and making their own homes as artistic leaders. But Grandage got there first, and has a head-start on them all.