“Sometimes I worry that going to the theatre can be something one feels one ought to do,” Josie Rourke is telling me as we grab lunch a few weeks into her new job as artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse. “You know, like going to the gym. Or making sure you eat Japanese food at least once a year in order that you are living a rich and varied cultural life. But there’s a thing at the centre of the Donmar that’s dead important,” she confides. “Whenever I have a ticket I’m so excited about going, because I always know it’ll be a great night out. My producer [Kate Pakenham] always says that if you’re taking someone to the theatre for the first time you should take them to the Donmar. That’s a very joyful and precious thing to keep hold of.”
In his recent autobiography, Stephen Sondheim described London’s tiny, 251-seater Donmar Warehouse as “the greatest theatre in the English-speaking world”. Formerly the hops warehouse for a local Covent Garden brewery, the Donmar, with its exposed brick walls and distinctive thrust stage, is no ordinary playhouse. It was always going to require a special replacement for Michael Grandage, who, along with his predecessor Sam Mendes, turned the boutique space into a global brand: an international byword for theatrical excellence, innovation and dramatic thrills. So, no pressure then? The diminutive Rourke emits a huge laugh. “It’s a big and fabulous claim but I think Sondheim is right. People are probably wondering why I would want this job. But I trained in that space, I dream in that space. It feels like coming home.”
It is only a little over a decade since Rourke, 35, first arrived at the Donmar as a Salford-born Cambridge graduate with almost zero practical theatre experience to train under Mendes, who had taken over the theatre in its modern, independent incarnation in 1992. Ten years, especially in a world where most artistic directors are well into middle age (not to mention male), is not very long. But the appointment, as Grandage himself was the first to note, is inspired. In the short time since leaving the Donmar as trainee and returning as artistic director, Rourke has proved an exceptional force in British theatre.
As an associate director at the Royal Court and Sheffield, and, latterly, responsible for drastically transforming the fortunes of a much-loved, leaky-roofed pub theatre in Shepherd’s Bush, Rourke pulled off the rare feat of making non-commercial theatre that people actually wanted to go and see. Under her leadership at the Bush it became virtually impossible to get tickets for new plays by unheard-of writers. Meanwhile, she not only secured the theatre’s financial future but oversaw its move into a magnificent new home in the former Shepherd’s Bush library. She also demonstrated an uncanny knack for spotting talent and developing new writing. The fantastically promising clutch of playwrights she nurtured – including Steve Thompson, Nick Payne, Alexi Kaye Campbell and Jack Thorne – are now in serious demand, their names gracing the credits of superb TV dramas such as This is England and Sherlock. And if Rourke is unashamedly intellectual, she is also utterly unpretentious: this is, after all, the woman who sees no contradiction in spending months poring over first folios and extant quartos to create her own scholarly edition of a Shakespeare play – and then casting David Tennant and Catherine Tate as her leads, as she did last year in a rapturously acclaimed West End production of Much Ado About Nothing.
Chatting between rehearsals for her inaugural show as artistic director, George Farquhar’s 1706 comedy The Recruiting Officer, Rourke seems unfazed by the legacy she inherits from Mendes and Grandage. But the three plays that open her debut season all reflect her appreciation for the Donmar tradition. “You can never truly innovate without a sense of respect for what went before,” she points out. Nevertheless The Recruiting Officer, which boasts a terrific cast including Mackenzie Crook, Nancy Carroll and Mark Gatiss, marks an obvious departure for the Donmar: it is, remarkably, the first time a play from that period has ever been performed there. “I just had an instinct that a late Restoration play would be fantastic on that stage, with its intimacy and proximity,” she explains as she tucks into a sandwich and a cup of tea. “You tend to see those sorts of plays on a large scale with enormous bits of set, but they weren’t performed like that at the time; they were played on the apron [stage] and were very plain, albeit with fabulous costumes. So I’m excited to see what happens when some of the production is stripped away.”
The dynamics of the Donmar space also influenced Rourke’s decision to revive Robert Holman’s Making Noise Quietly (1986), which follows. “There’s an extraordinary thing that the Donmar’s thrust stage does,” she points out, “where it becomes a place of great stillness and reflection.” Holman’s elegiac triptych, in which chance human encounters are overshadowed by the loss of war, will be directed by Peter Gill, whom Rourke had long felt “shared a sensibility” with the lyrical North Yorkshire playwright. Shared sensibilities are important to Rourke, who comes from a very close-knit Irish-Catholic background and admits that for her, theatre is often about relationships and family. “Some people talk about artistic direction as something that is curatorial,” she says, “and there is certainly a deep thought exercise in terms of how you create a programme. But it is also about a strong intuition that somebody might be able to do something really well that they haven’t done before. To bring artists together into unexpected relationships is one of the great joys of doing this. Of course it doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s fabulous.” She pauses. “It is about a celebration of encounter.’
Another Rourke-engineered “encounter” is that between Friedrich Dürrenmatt and Jack Thorne, whom Rourke has commissioned to write a new version of the Swiss dramatist’s 1960s satire The Physicists, which she will direct in June. “It was a thrill to introduce Jack to Dürrenmatt, who he didn’t know,” she beams. “Jack’s now an addict, totally convinced of Dürrenmatt’s genius.” The play is about a physicist who pretends to be mad and locks himself in an asylum to protect the world from his discovery. It explores questions around responsibility of knowledge and what that does to the individual. “It’s one of those big human condition plays. I mean, it’s a comedy, but with a deep, tragic vein. The Physicists also follows a dramatic thread sewn over the past few years by Michael Grandage. “I was thinking of that line that goes through Frost/Nixon, Caligula, Red, King Lear, where you look at the individual ... making these enormous choices.”
Frost/Nixon and Red were, notably, new plays. Given Rourke’s track record at the Bush, I wonder if new writing will continue to be a priority for her? “There’s a huge aspiration,” she nods. “The Donmar is primarily an acting space but it’s an exciting theatre for new work.” She is planning a commissioning cycle and has brought in the literary manager and playwright Anthony Weigh to help manage the process. “It will probably take a year or so. That’s generally the time it takes to deliver a new play.” She smiles, mischievously. “Although, actually, I have wrested plays from playwrights in shorter periods of time.”
I begin to suspect Rourke’s gentle manner and soft-spoken northern lilt should fool nobody. I joke that she may come across as the nicest director in the business but she’s clearly hard as nails underneath, and there’s that raucous laugh again. “Well, my mum’s a special needs teacher and my aunt’s a policewoman. I come from a family of very strong women who have done tough things in their careers. I think it is not hard for a northern woman to go tough.”
I’ve been wary of bringing up the gender question, so bored must she be of people defining her as a “female artistic director”, but seeing as she’s mentioned it …“Do I carry the fact I am a woman into the spaces I work?” she says, thoughtfully. “Yes, but I also carry the fact I am a northerner. I carry the fact of my family, of where I come from. There is a big thing in Salford about not showing off, not boring people, so I’m always obsessed with an audience’s attention span. I’ve been lucky enough to work in these intimate spaces, where you can see people up close, and I think it’s important to keep those critical voices in your head. You can feel when an audience’s attention is going; when they’re leaning forward or back or, horror of horrors, checking their watch. That test of the work is really important.” Politely, she checks her own watch, then begins to gather up her things to get back to her cast. It’s five minutes before their lunch break finishes. “My mum in particular has an extremely short attention span,” she grins. “If something is boring, she will just let you know.”
Clemency Burton-Hill is the chief theatre reporter for BBC2’s ‘The Culture Show’
‘The Recruiting Officer’ opens on February 14 at the Donmar Warehouse, www.donmarwarehouse.org