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Mark Shenton: Josie Rourke’s regime at the Donmar hasn’t quite hit the heights

Josie Rourke and Kate Pakenham. Photo: Hugo Glendinning
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Another shifting of the tectonic plates of London’s premier league theatres took place last week with the announcement of the planned 2019 departure of Josie Rourke from the Donmar Warehouse.

Rourke was appointed in March 2011 and began programming part-time soon after. She took on the role of artistic director full-time six years ago in January 2012, and she opened her first production at the Donmar in February 2012 – a revival of George Farquhar’s 1706 play The Recruiting Officer, the first Restoration comedy produced at the venue. By the time she goes, she will have been there full time for nearly seven and a half years.

Rourke is being preceded out the door by executive producer Kate Pakenham, who leaves in June 2018, and casting director Alastair Coomer, who leaves after five years to return to the National, where he previously worked, to replace Wendy Spon when she leaves in March. This could all be coincidence and outside opportunity (though Pakenham has not yet announced her own future plans), but to lose all three of its core creative staff at once will present a challenge for the Donmar.

Read our interview with Kate Pakenham

There’s no set time for artistic directors to serve. Dominic Cooke was at the Royal Court for only eight years. But Sam Mendes was at the helm of the Donmar for 10, and Michael Grandage for nine. So Rourke has had a shorter tenure than any of her predecessors.

The last show she directed there was Shaw’s Saint Joan in December 2016. Rourke has been shooting her debut film feature Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan, scheduled for release this November. Of course, she is not the first Donmar director to follow this route: Sam Mendes shot his film debut American Beauty when he was also still running the Donmar.

At the same time, Rourke has programmed the theatre and appointed the freelance directors there in her absence, but none has yet yielded a transferable hit. Not that this is the only mark of a successful theatre, but in the same period the Almeida has moved Hamlet, Ink and Mary Stuart to the West End. The Almeida, under Rupert Goold and with the defining support of Robert Icke, has increasingly set the agenda for studio theatres in London that was once the Donmar’s as of right.

The Donmar’s transfer record has been comparatively low in the last five years: only Rourke’s own productions of The Weir (to the West End), Les Liaisons Dangereuses (to Broadway in a substantially recast production that ended its limited run two weeks early) and Privacy (to Off-Broadway’s Public Theater, again recast) and Robert Hastie’s production of My Night With Reg (to the West End) occurred. Otherwise, the biggest success outside the building was in the groundbreaking all-female Shakespeare trilogy, led by Harriet Walter, that took Phyllida Lloyd’s productions to a temporary theatre in King’s Cross, joined by The Tempest, which also transferred to New York. Another show, The Machine, didn’t run at the Donmar, but was seen briefly in Manchester and New York.

Unlike under Grandage’s tenure, the theatre did no national or international touring. The persistent criticism of the Donmar over the years has been that it is a ‘boutique theatre’ (exclusive of necessity by having only 251 seats to sell). This may have been answered by occasional NT Live screenings and the live TV broadcast of James Graham’s The Vote on general election night of May 7, 2015, though the live theatre previews that preceded it were arguably the most exclusive event ever produced by the Donmar, running for just two weeks. Nor has the Donmar lately been necessarily selling all of its tickets anyway: seats were easy to find for both Knives in Hens and Committee last year. Interventions such as the Barclays Front Row seats for £10 have, however, helped increase accessibility for shows that have sold out.

By contrast, Mendes and Grandage’s Donmar both had numerous West End and Broadway transfers, and Grandage also made a major intervention in taking the brand outside the Donmar itself with a stellar season at Wyndham’s and promoting the work of young directors trained there at Trafalgar Studios 2.

Announcing her departure, Rourke said: “I was proud to be the first woman director to run a major London theatre.” But Lilian Baylis, who established the Old Vic as a London home for Shakespeare and reopened the derelict Sadlers’ Wells, might have a prior claim to that title. Rourke also said that “I’ve been lucky to open two new theatre buildings.” At the Donmar, this was the Dryden Street offices and rehearsal rooms, though it was a project initiated and fundraised under Grandage’s tenure.

All artistic directors position a theatre in their own image, and it is undoubtedly true that Rourke’s achievement at the Donmar was to put women centre stage in the theatrical conversation. As Pakenham rightly said: “The impact of Phyllida’s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy in promoting the value of women’s voices on our stages has been particularly energising.”

Natasha Tripney: The Donmar’s all-female Shakespeare isn’t just some casting stunt

I also adored Rourke’s own production of City of Angels, the first musical she directed in 2014, and her own star-driven Coriolanus (with Tom Hiddleston in the title role in 2013) was also a genuine highlight. But the overall verdict is of disappointment: a once-essential London theatre became less so, as the Almeida and Young Vic replaced it on the map.

Update: This article was updated on January 17 to include information in the second paragraph clarifying the dates of Rourke’s appointment and tenure and to add My Night With Reg to paragraph seven’s list of West End transfers.

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