Andrzej Lukowski: Josie Rourke’s mercurial reign at the Donmar was a whole lot of fun
I was a fan of Josie Rourke and her regime at the Donmar Warehouse. She and executive director Kate Pakenham took a venue that had become a byword for exquisite, hard-to-get-into, A-list-powered productions and sent it slightly nuts.
The hard-to-get-into A-list-powered productions didn’t actually go away. But their numbers diminished, rubbing up against interesting new writing, unexpected formal experiments, and off-the-wall revivals.
There was a huge focus on accessibility. This was partly thanks to some pioneering access schemes and partly because the eclectic programming and drop off in big names meant tickets were suddenly easier to come by than in Michael Grandage’s era.
Which is fine. One innovation of Rourke’s is that sometimes she would programme a 251-seat studio theatre as if it was a 251-seat studio theatre.
Like Queen or Abba, it’s probably easier to sum up Rourke’s reign at the Donmar via her greatest hits than strain to make sense of a rarely-predictable whole.
Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy of all-female, prison-set Shakespeare plays will probably go down as the signature achievement from the first female artistic director of a major London theatre.
But then there was Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus, the magnificent revival of Cy Coleman’s musical film noir pastiche City of Angels and James Graham’s loopy experiment Privacy. ( This memorably featured Michelle Terry as Josie Rourke).
The Donmar hosted Kwame Kwei-Armah’s reengagement with Brit theatre via the Olivier-nominated One Night in Miami. There was also the hit West End transfer revival of Conor McPherson’s The Weir and Kevin Elyot’s My Night With Reg. Confirming their statuses as contemporary classics.
There were some skippable album tracks – The Physicists and Welcome Home, Captain Fox!, the current Belleville – but it was ever thus. Looking back over a list of the productions during her time I’m startled by the number of good nights I remember during Josie’s reign.
News of her departure seems to have elicited a slightly mixed reception, with general positive murmurings mixed with a couple of more barbed critiques. Matt Trueman mused on WhatsOnStage that Rourke’s diverse programming lacked identity, while writing for The Stage, Mark Shenton concluded that her rule had been a ‘disappointment’, citing Rourke’s failure to match the West End success of Grandage.
The disappointment bit aside, I don’t necessarily disagree with either of them. The programming is definitely mercurial, and there have been fewer jaunts to the West End of late.
But it strikes me that viewing either of these things as problems is to have a very specific idea of what the Donmar should be. It is also perhaps to have an attachment to the Grandage regime that a general audience might not. That’s not to throw any shade at Grandage – his time in change was one thing, Rourke’s was another. Changes she made were not implicit rebukes to her predecessor.
I didn’t love everything. However, looking through the list of shows, it strikes me the thing that most characterised Josie Rourke’s time in charge of the Donmar Warehouse was that it was often an awful lot of fun. I will absolutely take that.
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