A Donmar decade
Josie Rourke, Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, picks ten highlights from a decade of Barclays sponsorship that’s seen groundbreaking productions and a transformed audience.
1. Donmar West End season, 2008/9
In 2008, the Donmar hopped temporarily from its own 251-seat theatre to the larger Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. Raising the profile of the Donmar, four major productions were staged, with Derek Jacobi in Twelfth Night, Judi Dench in Madame de Sade, Kenneth Branagh in Ivanov and Jude Law in Hamlet. Josie Rourke says: “We’ve always been keen on getting the Donmar’s work to reach new people. We had three shows in New York last year, for example, and we work with cinemas to screen our productions, but the beginning of the Donmar thinking about that was the West End season, where there was a desire to burst out of our theatre. “It was the beginning of a conversation about how our work can be seen. It was also trendsetting: that season inspired other theatres to follow suit – normally you transfer one play, but whole seasons have transferred with huge popular and commercial success. And it was the money from that, plus corporate investment, that allowed us to build and grow.”
2. A Streetcar Named Desire, 2009
In 2009, the Donmar produced an award-winning version of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Alongside Rachel Weisz, the casting of an, at the time, relatively unknown Ruth Wilson in a lead role cemented the Donmar’s reputation for identifying and nurturing the next generation of artists. Rourke remembers: “It was a ravishing production.
One of the things that was so extraordinary was the performance from Rachel Weisz, who was tremendously famous at that point, but had given one of her earliest performances on the Donmar stage. It was also a great performance from Ruth Wilson, who’s gone on to fame but at that point was not that well known.
“One of the things that’s great about the Donmar, and something this partnership with Barclays allows us to do, is we can begin people’s careers as well as celebrate them. Allowing new and emerging talents to give those performances can get them into the heart of people’s theatrical imaginations and do amazing things for their status.”
3. Trafalgar season, 2010
In 2010, the Donmar took over the Trafalgar Studios for a special season of productions directed by graduates of the theatre’s famed Resident Assistant Director scheme. The scheme offers unparalleled training opportunities for the next generation of theatre directors (Rourke herself is a graduate). The season gave graduates of the scheme the opportunity to produce plays of their choosing in an iconic West End theatre – an unheard of opportunity for up and coming directors.
Rourke says: “This is a highlight because it’s about supporting the talent of the future and giving young directors the opportunity to do a Donmar show with Donmar production values. It has done great things for the careers of many young directors, and one of the directors from that season – Simon Evans – directed this year’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui with Lenny Henry on our main stage. Giving those breaks and opportunities is what we really love doing.”
4. The Shakespeare Trilogy, 2012 – 2016
In 2012, the Donmar Warehouse embarked on a mission to produce a trilogy of all-female Shakespeare plays, intended to spark a cultural conversation around issues of gender, equality and aspiration. The productions of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and The Tempest, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and with a cast led by Dame Harriet Walter, asked the question: ‘Who owns Shakespeare?’ and ignited a global debate around issues of diversity and access. Spanning London and New York, The Shakespeare Trilogy provided a platform on which to interrogate issues faced by women today across cultural, generational, and socio-economic backgrounds.
Rourke adds: “When we started this in 2012, with Julius Caesar, it felt completely radical. To have such a socio-economically and ethnically diverse female company doing a Shakespeare play was a big deal at the time, and we kept that project going partly because it created such a splash and debate, but also because the work was so amazing and it’s been a huge success for us. It’s been in London, in New York, on screen, and we’ve taken it to schools and prisons – it’s had real social impact as well as critical acclaim and we’re really, really proud of it.
“Over the course of three years, what felt groundbreaking and radical has now become accepted practice for lots of other companies. That was a moment of real change within the industry – and Barclays will know this – when you give a diversity of people those roles, not only does your company change, but your whole industry starts to change.”
5. Barclays Front Row, 2012 – 2016
In 2012, the Donmar partnered with Barclays to create Barclays Front Row – a revolutionary ticket access scheme, which enabled the general public to purchase the best seats for Donmar productions at short notice for £10. The scheme, which saw 32,000 tickets sold between 2012 and 2016 – with 82% of purchasers being first-time visitors – saw the theatre move forward in its ambitions to become more accessible to a wider and more diverse audience.
Rourke describes the value: “When Kate Pakenham and I took over at the Donmar, there was a wider theatre industry perception that the Donmar was exclusive. What we really wanted to do was make sure there was balance in the audience. That gives value to everybody – because it lets you watch a performance sitting in an audience that genuinely represents your city. That’s of value to the audience in itself: you shouldn’t just be sitting amongst your peers to see plays.”
“Even on Barclays nights, when people from the bank come with their clients, we’ve been mixing in schools and young people and apprenticeship groups, and that’s made a real change to the feeling of the audience. It’s not just about the play you see, it’s about the people you see it with – there’s a broader issue of access and what theatre means, and those nights, as well as the Front Row scheme, embrace that.”
6. The development of Donmar Dryden Street, 2013
In 2013, thanks to a cornerstone gift from Barclays, the Donmar was able to purchase and develop a new creative space in Dryden Street, a five-minute walk from the theatre. It became the creative backbone of the organisation and home to all of the theatre’s rehearsal, administrative and education work. The development has allowed the Donmar to continue its ambitious growth plans.
Rourke explains: “Dryden Street has completely transformed the theatre and the company. Having a building where artists and backroom staff and people we’re meeting are all wandering through the same space, mixing together, gives a sense of togetherness between the artistic and the administrative, and those supporting the arts.”
“We certainly couldn’t have done it without the generous support of Barclays, and actually there’s huge meaning in that – they could have gone to other places that were more visible, but they’ve done something with a lot of meaning and longevity here, and the deepening of the relationship between Barclays and the Donmar has been a result of that.”
7. Privacy, 2014/2016
In 2014, Rourke teamed up with writer James Graham to create his new play, Privacy. The play dealt with issues surrounding privacy in an information-saturated world. The production marked a new form of theatre, challenging audiences to leave their mobile phones on and engage with the production and its themes. Following a sold-out run at the Donmar in 2014, Privacy moved to The Public Theater, New York, in the summer of 2016.
Rourke remembers: “This was a play with James Graham, who’s now ruling the West End. We wanted to do a show that explored privacy in the 21st century. The journey of that show was incredible – we did it at the Donmar, we took it to New York, and as I speak Diego Luna is doing the play in Mexico. It’s had a really international journey and is the sort of work that will keep being performed in different languages and cultures.”
8. The Vote, 2015
Josie and writer James Graham teamed up again in 2015 to produce The Vote, set in a polling station in the last 90 minutes of voting. Broadcast on More4 in real-time on the night of the 2015 General Election, the play was performed on the Donmar stage with a cast of over 40 actors (including Dame Judi Dench) exploring the very nature of how we exercise our democratic rights. It was nominated for a BAFTA for ‘Best Live Event’, and viewed by 635,000 people on television and on-demand services.
Rourke says: “I thought The Vote was amazing. It was a crazy idea to set a play in a polling station from 8.30 to 10pm on election night, going out live on television at the exact time it was set. It was wildly ambitious, both creatively and practically, and one of the best experiences I’ve ever had directing – unlike anything I’ve ever done before or anything many people had ever seen.”
9. YOUNG+FREE, 2016
In 2016, the Donmar launched YOUNG+FREE, offering free tickets to young people aged 25 and under, which saw over 10,000 tickets claimed in its first year of operation. The scheme is funded through the Pay It Forward campaign, which asks Donmar audiences to contribute by ‘paying forward’ their theatre-going experience to enable a young person to attend for free.
Rourke adds: “The idea of this scheme is to support young people in their theatre-going, to build the next generation of audiences. At Barclays nights the audiences have been massively generous towards this, and it’s been massively successful in general: any theatre has an attrition rate with some people not turning up, but YOUNG+FREE has the most successful ‘turn up rate’ of any ticket we have.”
10. Barclays relationship, 2007 – 2017
In December 2007, Barclays Investment Bank partnered with the Donmar as principal sponsor, aligning the two brands in joint pursuit of excellence and a commitment to the communities they serve. Over the last decade, Barclays has worked with the Donmar and its leadership to grow the theatre’s core ambitions of excellence, access and innovation.
As well as Barclays Front Row and the development of Dryden Street, Rourke highlights some of the benefits of the partnership: “The closeness and longevity of our relationship with Barclays meant we could have a really honest conversation about where we felt the Donmar and its audience was,” she says. “We’re talking to people who know this theatre really well – who know its strengths and its challenges.
“When friends from Barclays come to the Donmar, it’s great to see them have a great and entertaining night at the theatre. As much as the relationship is about the meaningful stuff of supporting the arts and developing talent, it’s also where you can bring your clients and talk about your business – so when Barclays can combine those corporate entertainment nights with getting people to donate significantly towards the future of the theatre, it’s amazing for everyone.”