Mark Shenton’s top venues: Donmar Warehouse, London
The Donmar Warehouse is like a cat with nine lives. It’s onto around the fifth of them now, I reckon; it keeps reinventing itself.
The Donmar Warehouse: beginnings
The first was when the venue, which had variously been used as a hop warehouse in the 1870s for a local brewery, then a banana-ripening depot for Covent Garden market traders, became a studio home for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1977 (when its main London home was also in Covent Garden at the nearby Aldwych Theatre). Among the hits that were born here were the original productions of Piaf and Educating Rita, both of which subsequently transferred to larger commercial houses.
Then, after the RSC decamped to the Barbican (where the Pit became its studio home), Nica Burns – now chief executive of Nimax Theatres – ran it as a receiving house for shows originated at other theatres, and originated some cabaret-style shows, too, including the David Kernan conceived and directed Jerome Kern Goes to Hollywood, with a cast that featured the late, great Elisabeth Welch, that subsequently transferred (briefly) to Broadway, where it ran for just 13 performances.
It was also at the Donmar that Barbara Cook staged her first triumphant return to the London cabaret stage in 1986 and would become a regular fixture in the years that followed on this and other London stages. (In 1997, she returned to the Donmar as part of the first Divas at the Donmar season, an annual run of cabaret performances I helped to programme; I am particularly proud that I also, in that first season, booked Imelda Staunton to do her solo cabaret accompanied by a big band, and Broadway’s Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway with their show Sibling Revelry). During that era, the Donmar was also a receiving house for Edinburgh Festival Fringe transfers, including the annual Perrier Pick of the Fringe seasons that Burns programmed.
The Donmar Warehouse: Sam Mendes
Then came closure and a complete refurbishment, during which the Donmar was reframed as a producing house. Sam Mendes was appointed its first artistic director, with Caro Newling as his executive producer – a relationship they have continued to this day with Neal Street Productions, the West End, Broadway and film producing company they founded with Pippa Harris.
Their Donmar regime began in 1992 with the British premiere of Sondheim’s Assassins, directed by Mendes, and Sondheim would become a regular feature in the years that followed. Mendes would also direct a magnificent production of Company – to this day, the best I ever saw, starring Adrian Lester as Bobby with a cast that also featured Sheila Gish and Clive Rowe – in 1995, that subsequently transferred to the Albery (now the Noel Coward).
Into the Woods, revived in 1998 under the direction of John Crowley, featured the magnificent Nick Holder and Sophie Thompson as the Baker and his Wife, Clare Burt as the Witch, Jenna Russell as Cinderella, and a not-yet-famous Damian Lewis in the double role of the Wolf and Cinderella’s Prince. Also in the cast was a very young Sheridan Smith, making her professional debut as Little Red Riding Hood (though she’d already been on the West End stage with the National Youth Music Theatre.)
Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along was revived in 2000, under the direction of Michael Grandage with Julian Ovenden, Daniel Evans and Samantha Spiro starring, in a production that would prove an important calling card for Grandage to subsequently assume the artistic director mantle from Mendes.
While Mendes reigned, the theatre had a particular penchant for American musicals and plays. Mendes first staged Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret at the Donmar in 1993 in a production that became a blueprint for the revival he took to Broadway, with Rob Marshall, in 1998, first at the Henry Miller Theatre then transferring to Studio 54, where it was revived again in 2014. He also directed the world premiere of Dempsey and Rowe’s The Fix in 1997, with a cast that included John Barrowman and Olivier Award-winning Philip Quast. There was also Maury Yeston’s Nine, directed by David Leveaux in 1996, again providing a blueprint for a revival Leveaux also subsequently did on Broadway in 2003.
Among American playwrights regularly programmed during Mendes’ time were Tennessee Williams, (The Glass Menagerie, Suddenly Last Summer, Orpheus Descending), David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, Fool for Love, American Buffalo, A Lie of the Mind) and Sam Shepherd (True West, Boston Marriage). There were also Broadway classics The Front Page (1997) and The Little Foxes (2001), and the UK premieres of Off-Broadway hits including Paula Vogel’s How I Learnt to Drive, Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, the world premiere of Greenberg’s Take Me Out, and David Auburn’s Proof, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
But if American work provided a cornerstone to Mendes’ regime, there were also some notable British plays, including Mendes’ (in)famous production of David Hare’s The Blue Room in 1998 (starring Nicole Kidman, dubbed “pure theatrical viagra” by the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer), and revivals of Noel Coward (Design for Living in 1994, subsequently transferring to the West End), Alan Bennett (Habeas Corpus in 1996), Pinter (a triple bill of A Kind of Alaska, with Penelope Wilton, The Collection with a cast that included Pinter himself, and The Lover in 1998), Tom Stoppard (The Real Thing in 1999, in a production starring Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle that transferred to both the West End and Broadway), and Peter Nichols (Passion Play in 2000 and Privates on Parade in 2002, both directed by Grandage).
The Donmar Warehouse: Michael Grandage
After a decade-long run at the helm, by which time he had already started working on Oscar-winning film American Beauty, Mendes handed the reins to Michael Grandage, who began his own 10-year run there in 2002 (although he didn’t surrender his post as artistic director of Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre until 2005). He reoriented the theatre’s emphasis away from American work to concentrate on the European repertoire from Pirandello to Schiller, Camus to Dario Fo, Ibsen (Grandage did particularly striking work with The Wild Duck and John Gabriel Borkman), and of course studio Shakespeare, for which Grandage became his own best director with productions of Othello (including Euan McGregor as Iago), King Lear (Derek Jacobi in the title role) and Richard II (with Eddie Redmayne).
The Donmar also continued to host great musicals that included Grandage directing Grand Hotel, Jamie Lloyd directing Sondheim’s Passion and Rob Ashford directing the UK premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade. Ashford, who Grandage appointed as an associate, also directed Rachel Weisz in A Streetcar Named Desire and Jude Law in Anna Christie.
There were also new plays such as Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon (with Frank Langella and Michael Sheen) and John Logan’s Red (with Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne) that Grandage directed and subsequently transferred to Broadway. Grandage also took the Donmar brand beyond its Covent Garden home, with West End residencies at Wyndham’s (including Grandage’s own productions of Ivanov with Kenneth Branagh and Tom Hiddleston, Twelfth Night with Derek Jacobi, Hamlet with Jude Law, plus the better-forgotten Madame de Sade with Judi Dench, and a season showcasing the work of the Donmar’s resident assistant directors staged at Trafalgar Studios 2.
But all good things must, of course, come to an end, and Grandage finally left the Donmar in 2012 to form his own Michael Grandage Company, who’ve already run a West End residency at the Noel Coward and recently returned there for Photograph 51 with Nicole Kidman.
The Donmar Warehouse: Josie Rourke
In 2012, Josie Rourke, who trained as a resident assistant director at the Donmar under Mendes, was appointed as artistic director, and although her programming took time to find its feet, she too has remade the Donmar in her own image. Among interventions made by her and her executive director Kate Pakenham was to address the theatre’s permanently sold-out status: with only 251 seats, it could feel like an exclusive club, with seats only going to donors and very early (and very lucky) bookers. But now thanks to the innovative Barclays Front Row scheme, tickets in the front rows of the stalls and circle are made available for every performance two weeks ahead of that week’s shows for just £10. (I know it works; I have twice now secured tickets online via the £10 scheme).
Last Christmas she did magnificent work with her first musical City of Angels, and she has just opened a revival of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which may yet follow her own production of Brian Friel’s The Weir (which transferred to Wyndham’s) to the West End, while associate director Robert Hastie’s revival of Kevin Elyot’s My Night with Reg has moved to the Apollo. She also scored topical triumphs with James Graham’s Privacy and The Vote (the latter staged for a run of just a fortnight in the run up to the last general election, with the final performance broadcast live on TV in the final 90 minutes before polling booths closed). Rourke has also given Phyllida Lloyd a home for her all-female Shakespeare productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV, both of which subsequently played at Off-Broadway’s St Ann’s Warehouse (the latter has just closed there last week).
The Donmar is, in other words, holding its own as a staging post for some of the best theatre in London, and remains a theatre that occupies a unique spot in my own theatregoing life as both briefly a producer and regular audience member.
41 Earlham St, London WC2H 9LX
Telephone 020 7438 9200 (administration); 0844 871 7624 (box office)
Owner Ambassador Theatre Group, managed by Donmar Warehouse Projects Ltd, who will take ownership of building in 2016.
Artistic dircctor Josie Rourke
Executive producer Kate Pakenham
General manager Bailey Lock
Casting director Alastair Coomer
Director of development Stephanie Dittmer
Head of corporate development Vicki Grace
Associate directors Robert Hastie, Phyllida Lloyd
Associate artist James Graham
Dryden Street writer in Residence Nick Payne
Trainee artistic director Cathal Cleary
Resident assistant director Zoe Ford
Composer in residence Michael Bruce
Education manager Sam Maynard
Head of marketing Tom Robertson
Head of finance Jon Chartres
Head of wardrobe Nicola Webley
Chief electrician George Dives
Master carpenter David Skelly
Theatre manager David Griffiths
Ticketing manager Chris Millar
Chair of Donmar Warehouse Projects board of directors The Lord Browne of Madingley
Board secretary Simon Meadon
Funding Subsidised (Arts Council England); Barclays (principal sponsor); Simmons & Simmons (associate sponsor)