It would have been nice, of course, to see another woman appointed to head up a major theatre. But never mind, it’s impossible to greet Michael Longhurst’s appointment as artistic director of the Donmar with anything other than massive enthusiasm.
Longhurst, who replaces outgoing artistic director Josie Rourke, who departs after eight years, is riding high. His superlative revival of the musical Caroline, Or Change, at Chichester then Hampstead, is West End-bound later this year and his gorgeous revival of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus has enjoyed two successful runs at the National Theatre.
Belleville at the Donmar last year, with James Norton and Imogen Poots, may not have been one of his greatest successes but even those who questioned the play admired Longhurst’s handling of it. He can do both flash and quiet, but even at his flashiest, his work has integrity.
It sometimes feels there’s nothing Longhurst can’t pull off, and that’s because he’s not just a director with instinctive flair but also a product of the years he spent freelancing – at the coalface, learning his craft.
An innate versatility has taken him from a promenade-style staging of Adam Brace’s Stovepipe, a play about mercenaries in Iraq, to a conceptual re-imagining of Caryl Churchill’s A Number; from the West End and Broadway productions of Nick Payne’s multi-universe romcom Constellations to A Winter’s Tale in the Sam Wanamaker.
Longhurst has served his time. He knows his stuff and is admired for his dramaturgical skills when working on new plays. It became clear he was ahead of the game in 2008, when he picked Debbie Tucker Green’s Dirty Butterfly to stage at the Young Vic after winning the Jerwood Director’s Award. The choice made a statement not just about British theatre, but also his tastes and aesthetic.
He is part of an increasingly dominant generation of UK-based theatre directors who look to Europe rather than Britain for inspiration. Longhurst is an admirer of both Sebastian Nubling and Thomas Ostermeier, which shows in productions where every element, from design to sound, is part of the weft and the weave of the experience.
Longhurst’s productions belong to others – particularly designers such as Tom Scutt, Lizzie Clachan and Chloe Lamford – as they do to him, which is something he acknowledges.
As director, he may hold the conductor’s baton but knows he can produce nothing without the full orchestra. This kind of collaboration is most obvious in his work on shows such as the savagely beautiful Carmen Disruption at the Almeida in 2015 in which – together with writer Simon Stephens, and a host of other collaborators – he dissected our fractured lonely lives.
It was just as evident in his Amadeus, a production that put the music centre stage and turned Shaffer’s pot-boiler into something more epic and profound.
Longhurst once told The Stage that making theatre was one of the ways that he finds out about the world. He is also a great storyteller, and one who understands – more than most – the need to find new ways to tell stories in theatre. It will be intriguing to see what stories he tells at the Donmar.