Not an ideal world

In an ideal world, theatres like the Donmar shouldn't have to exist. In an ideal world, each major theatre in England could afford an ensemble, a lengthy rehearsal period, and possess an ongoing dialogue with a loyal audience. Over the years, it would have developed an aesthetic, a methodology and definable tastes.

Something like this existed in the 1960s and 70s in England, when, looking across the theatre landscape one could see, amongst others, Gaskill and Dexter at the Royal Court, Olivier at the Old Vic, Hall and Nunn at the RSC, John Neville at the Nottingham Playhouse, Alan Dossor at the Liverpool Everyman, the beginnings of the Glasgow Citizens, and the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Definable aesthetics, beliefs in how theatre should be, disagreements, debate, opinion...

The 1980s, of course, bought about the gradual erosion of this landscape, and with the glowing exception of Richard Eyre's regime at the National Theatre and one or two others, this erosion continues. It's a world now of freelance directors, all working in the same few theatres, all discussing the same few plays. A world where the desired theatre contract for a young actor or actress is a short one that can be fitted between television and film commitments, so, at the very least, he or she can pay their mortgage. It is a world of buckling under the weight of a new disease: celebrity obsession.

Is the Donmar a product of this, or in some small part a cause of it? I don't think that even I, having run the theatre for ten years, can objectively answer that question. But what I can say is that, despite all this, even because of it, something special happened in this small theatre in the middle of Covent Garden in the years 1992 to 2002.

"Retrospective policy"

When Caro Newling and I began our regime at the newly formed Donmar in 1992, we regularly brazened out questions about our immediate goals by answering that we believed in 'retrospective policy'. What we really meant was, "Wait three years and then we'll have worked out what our policy is". Well, luckily for us, a policy turned up. We followed our tastes, trusted our instincts, and tried to persuade the best directors and actors to come to us.

Most of all, we ensured that pacing the foyers and brightly coloured stairways of the old banana warehouse were writers like Stephen Sondheim, Brian Friel, Athol Fugard, David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Alan Bennett, Michael Frayn, Peter Nichols, Kander and Ebb, Frank McGuinness, Joe Penhall, Paula Vogel, Richard Greenberg, David Mamet, David Auburn and many others.

So the new Donmar gradually emerged out of the mist: eclectic, entertaining, brazen, unapologetic in its pop-art aspirations and, consequently, mostly unfunded. How much of this was planned? Honestly? About two-thirds. The other third was a series of happy accidents. But then we were light on our feet, able to adapt, and, adhering to the 1990s model, we could be a little more of a street fighter than theatres had traditionally been able, or needed to be.

Celebrities & cultural phenomena

Occasionally, we played host not to plays, not even to theatre, but to cultural phenomena, such as The Blue Room (which starred Hollywood's Nicole Kidman opposite Iain Glen). It's true that that period was a mixed blessing. But, make no bones about it, thereafter we were able to use its success and adapt at speed.

We didn't cast another movie star until four years later when John Madden cast Gwyneth Paltrow in Proof (though there were no shortage of offers), but in that time, many people came to the theatre who had never come before, we trebled our Friends membership, and played to an average audience of 85%, whilst, most importantly, producing more new work than ever before.

Regrets, I've had a few..but not many

Despite all this, I have a few regrets. I wish I'd pursued more relentlessly several new plays, including amongst others Terry Johnson's Hysteria and all of Kevin Elyot's (though, in the end, all these were done very well at the Royal Court). I wish I'd had more opportunities to promote some of our trainee directors to fully-fledged directors under our own roof. I wish we'd done more Shakespeare. I wish that, as wonderful as they are, we didn't need a whole department in our tiny theatre dedicated solely to fundraising. In other words, I wish we'd had some money.

But one thing we did do well was plan for the future. Having had three terrific associate directors, one of them, Michael Grandage, is now taking over the theatre. I couldn't be more confident that he will make it his own, whilst understanding its particular and unique spirit.

Living on & looking forward

Would I do it again somewhere else? Absolutely. Though it would probably again have to be from scratch. More satisfying, after all, to start a village shop than take over an existing franchise. On second thoughts, more of a junk shop, perhaps akin to David Mamet's creation in American Buffalo.

There, as at the Donmar, things of true value and beauty simply pass through - Alan Cumming's beckoning finger in Cabaret, Stephen Dillane and his cricket bat in The Real Thing, Zoe Wanamaker and her single drop of blood in Electra, Nicole Kidman taking her first curtain call, Clive Rowe's joyous one-man show, the tank drill in the forest in To the Green Fields Beyond, the great John Kani twinkling in Fugard's Playland, Claire Skinner washing her glass figurines in The Glass Menagerie, Jim Broadbent's desperate, frantic dance of death at the end of Habeas Corpus, the kids singing that 'something is stirring' during Merrily We Roll Along, and on and on.

No video shelf available for these, thank goodness. They live on in the building, in the memory, and now in Matt Wolf's book, Stepping into Freedom.


The above is edited extracted from Sam Mendes' introduction to Stepping into Freedom: Sam Mendes at the Donmar by Matt Wolf, newly published by Nick Hern Books (priced £14.99).

Nick Hern is delighted to offer Whatsonstage.com readers a discount of £4.00 OFF the cover price - in other words, just £10.99, plus postage and packing. To take advantage of this offer, just enter the reference "Whatsonstage.com" in the notes section of the order form at www.nickhernbooks.co.uk and the discount will be automatically applied.

You can also enter our competition to WIN one of FIVE copies of Stepping into Freedom. Click here to enter. Competition ends 8 January 2003.


Sam Mendes steps down as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse at the end of this month. His final productions for the theatre - Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night - finish their sell-out seasons on 20 and 30 November respectively.