When Josie Rourke leaves London’s Donmar theatre in 2019, she will have the distinction of being one of the few artistic directors to have featured as a character in one of their productions. Michelle Terry portrayed Rourke in James Graham’s Privacy (2014), which dramatised his struggles in writing a play for the Donmar about the social impact of online technology.
Graham’s play was pioneering in its attempt to reimagine theatre for a digital culture, an area in which Rourke has been a leading thinker. In a reversal of usual protocol, audiences for Privacy were asked to leave their mobile phones on, and use them interactively during the show. Rourke and Graham were similarly innovative with The Vote, a rapid-reaction play set on the night of the 2015 general election, broadcast live on Channel 4.
Such perky experiments were one of the ways that Rourke dealt with what was, when she was appointed in 2011, a tough hand to play. Her predecessors at the Donmar, Michael Grandage and Sam Mendes, had turned the 251-seat venue in Covent Garden into an international player, through movie-star casting and regular West End and Broadway transfers. Although thrilled to be the first woman to run a central London theatre, Rourke knew the risk of becoming a theatrical equivalent of John Major after Margaret Thatcher or Gordon Brown after Tony Blair.
After a nervous start, she made the theatre her own with a programme that forefronted women – notably Phyllida Lloyd’s magnificent trilogy imagining Shakespeare tragedies as performed by female prisoners – and politics. There was even a musical (with Rourke as co-librettist) about BBC broadcaster Alan Yentob’s appearance before a parliamentary committee to explain the scandalous collapse of Kids Company, the charity he ran.
Crucially, Rourke also achieved her own Grandage-like transatlantic hits, with a revival of Les Liaisons Dangereuses going to Broadway, and Daniel Radcliffe starring in a New York version of Privacy. Rourke’s exceptional scholarly knowledge of the dramatic repertoire also spawned a series of revivals ranging from the forgotten (Racine’s Berenice, Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists) to new looks at Conor McPherson’s The Weir and Brian Friel’s Faith Healer that confirmed them as contemporary classics.
Watching Rourke escorting David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers at the first night of a play (Limehouse by Steve Waters) that pitilessly portrayed their creation of the SDP also demonstrated the smartness and charm that made her (unlike some artistic directors) a natural for the ambassadorial tasks of running a theatre.
When she leaves in 2019, Rourke will have completed seven years at the Donmar, and the release this November of her first movie – Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan – suggests diversifying ambitions. The reception of the film will decide whether Rourke extends the list of star British theatre directors (led by Mendes and Stephen Daldry) who seemed destined to run the National Theatre until they were seduced away by cinema.
The fact that Rourke’s executive director Katie Pakenham will leave simultaneously hints that she may be thinking about following the fashionable path (taken by Grandage, Nicholas Hytner, and Marianne Elliott) of setting up a commercial repertory company. She will remain, though, a leading contender to succeed Rufus Norris at the National.
The job she vacates will be hotly coveted. Few major theatres present the problem of most shows selling out to the subscription base before they open, although the limited seat numbers (which Rourke addressed through delayed-release and day-purchase schemes) will again be a big issue in the interviews.
London theatre boards these days tend to fantasise about persuading an international star (Amsterdam’s Ivo van Hove? South Africa’s Yaël Farber?) to set up a UK base. More realistic targets for Donmar chairman Lord Browne of Madingley include Indhu Rubasingham (currently at the Tricycle in Kilburn), Madani Younis of the Bush, and Nadia Fall, although she has only recently taken over the Theatre Royal Stratford East.
Among regional artistic directors, James Dacre at Northampton and Elizabeth Newman at the Bolton Octagon might read the advert with interest, while impressive directors who may fancy a desk job of this standing include Simon Godwin, Natalie Abrahami, Maria Aberg, Polly Findlay and James MacDonald.
Rourke’s great achievement, though, is that she will leave over her successor the sort of exemplary shadow that Grandage left for her.
Rourke’s Donmar: five of the best
Shakespeare Trilogy As an artistic director, Rourke’s greatest achievement was enabling Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female versions of Henry V, Julius Caesar and The Tempest, which spread from the theatre’s Covent Garden home to a temporary Donmar beside King’s Cross station.
City of Angels Rourke’s talents as a director were showcased in this thrilling 2014 revival of Cy Coleman’s and Larry Gelbart’s spoof black and white crime-movie musical.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses It’s a risk to revive a play that exists in living memory in a perfect premiere production (by Howard Davies), but Rourke found images and tones of her own, with Janet McTeer magnificent as a scheming aristocrat.
Committee Colloquially known as “Yentob! The Musical”, this bizarre verbatim musical taken from a day’s parliamentary evidence showed Rourke’s gift for an improbable commission, and proved genuinely educative about Westminster.
Coriolanus Tom Hiddleston – pre-Night Manager and Bond speculation – was helped to superstardom by Rourke’s visceral version of Shakespeare’s play on one of her obsessive themes: the relationship between politics and the people.