Michael Longhurst takes centre stage at the Donmar

30 August 2019

The award-winning theatre director Michael Longhurst has joined London’s celebrated Donmar Warehouse as its new Artistic Director. He tells us about his commitment to “politically relevant” theatre, the importance of Barclays’ longstanding support for the Donmar – and why his appointment led him to read “more plays than I’ve ever read in my life”. 

“I was 15 the first time I went to the Donmar,” says Longhurst, whose appointment coincides with 11 years of Barclays’ sponsorship of the theatre. “Before that, I’d just been to the occasional musical in a big theatre, sat miles away in the upper circle. To suddenly be in a theatre having that intimate relationship with a performance was incredible. It was just something I’d never experienced.”

Longhurst cut his teeth with critically acclaimed productions like Constellations by Nick Payne – which went from the tiny London venue Royal Court Theatre Upstairs to New York’s Broadway – and his re-imagining of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus at the National Theatre in London.

Then there was his uplifting, Olivier Award-winning musical set in segregation-era Louisiana, Caroline, or Change, which went to London’s West End via smaller UK venues in Chichester and London’s Hampstead, and is now off to Broadway next year. 

The Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar Warehouse, Dryden Street, London

“Theatre needs to be relevant,” says Longhurst. “It needs to be helping us understand our place in the world as humans and as part of society and I find theatre extraordinary in generating empathy like that. When we started rehearsing Caroline, or Change, the confederate soldier statues were being taken down in America and it was this incredible thing. And then almost straight away, Charlottesville happened. It’s not often you get to do a musical that feels so incredibly politically relevant.”

A perfect partnership

It’s been 11 years since Barclays first became the Donmar’s principle sponsor. With a joint pursuit of excellence and commitment to the communities they serve, the partnership has always been a strong one, with Barclays helping to nurture the theatre’s core ambitions of excellence, access and innovation. The opening of Dryden Street, a new creative space five minutes from the theatre, has been a key development – one made possible thanks to a cornerstone gift from Barclays.

Longhurst is effusive about the Donmar’s partnership with Barclays. “The benefit of their guaranteed support over the years has been a bedrock of security which has allowed the artistic programme to take risks and be as bold as we can,” he says.

“It’s also crucial in allowing us to keep our ticket prices low and subsidise so people can see things for free”. He continues: “It’s so good to have a partner that understands what their support can do and that the relationship can be multi-faceted. We can help them in terms of hosting clients and delivering on their corporate social responsibility.” A win-win.

“The Donmar auditorium is a special place,” explains Longhurst on the appeal of working in the theatre. “You can stage a full battle in there yet hear a pin drop. It has this amazing expanding and contracting quality. It’s also an incredible space for actors as there’s nowhere to hide. Offstage left is just a cupboard. So if you’re in a play at the Donmar, you’ve got to be able to bear your soul at a certain level. That’s why audiences love seeing performances in that space – and why actors love giving them.”

Donmar Warehouse, Far Away

Poster artwork for Donmar Warehouse’s Far Away show

Season one

So, what are his plan for the theatre? “Obviously there’s a huge pressure on a director’s first show, as if it represents everything you stand for,” Longhurst laughs. “My internal ‘note to self’ has been that every production must be an important story, thrillingly told. This prompted me to read more plays than I’ve ever read in my life.”

The last play Longhurst picked up, Europe – which he found by chance, browsing in a New York bookshop – ended up being his first production, with a run that finished earlier this month. “It’s twenty-five years old but feels like it was written yesterday,” says Longhurst. “Something that feels incredible and also very unsettling. It’s based in an unnamed town where the border has just moved so a factory has closed and people have been made redundant. It explores the effects of globalisation on a town that’s been left behind, without a thought for its community.”

This was followed by the opening of Appropriate, by major African American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which offers a thrilling twist on the great American family play. Set in a former plantation, it looks at how people bury trauma and deny it and the huge impact it can have on them.

A third, [BLANK] by Alice Birch – scheduled to run from early October – is a co-production with Clean Break, a theatre company working with women with experience of the criminal justice system “It’s so important from our position of privilege at the Donmar to be able to look across the whole of society and hone in on injustice and inequality,” says Longhurst.

Longhurst believes passionately in making theatre as accessible to as many people as possible, something the Donmar has long strived to do. “As a young theatre goer, I could never book in advance to see a show,” Longhurst recalls. “I didn’t know which shows I wanted to see, and I didn’t know if I’d have the money at that moment.”

The Donmar has introduced Donmar Daily Release for the coming season, where at least 40 tickets are released each day for a performance a week later. The hope is that this will help overturn potential theatre-goers perception that everything good is always sold out.

There are many things Longhurst is looking forward to in his new role, not least being able to build a sustained relationship with an audience, serving them over a period of time. “One of my main passions in theatre is discovering new writing, so I’m also really keen to bring new voices like Alice Birch and new plays to the Donmar – both UK and world premieres,” he says.

He will also get the chance to commission plays from scratch – a prospect he describes as “thrilling” – and bring in a whole raft of new designers who have never worked at the Donmar before. He says: “I feel incredibly lucky to be inheriting this brilliantly resourced and loved theatre.”