Theatre must continue the change Josie Rourke brought

As Josie Rourke and Kate Pakenham announce they will be leaving the Donmar Warehouse, Sarah Crompton looks at their legacy

Josie Rourke and Kate Pakenham
Josie Rourke and Kate Pakenham
© Dan Wooller for WhatsOnStage

The news that Josie Rourke is leaving the artistic directorship of the Donmar Warehouse after eight years at the helm – and that her executive producer Kate Pakenham is stepping down at more or less the same time – brings to an end a ground-breaking period of change.

Rourke, staggeringly, was the first woman to take charge of a major London theatre. "It’s mental isn’t it," she told me when we talked last year. "It was just insane that a woman hadn’t done that before. But the important thing is how much it has changed now."

Rourke and Pakenham have been a vital part of that shift in the landscape. Their achievements have been stealthy but significant. "One thing we know is that change rolls back very quickly unless you work gradually, steadily and quietly to make it systemic," Rouke told me. "We have been quietly disciplined."

Behind the scenes, they altered the way that the Donmar worked so that the hours and structures were less antithetical to the women (and men) who were parents. They were a founding member of Parents in Performing Arts and implemented new ways of making the Donmar a family-friendly working environment; policies include periods of paternity leave during rehearsal and performance, financial support for childcare costs if necessary; flexible scheduling of rehearsal round childcare commitments. Becoming, a piece about giving birth was commissioned from young mothers Michelle Terry (now running The Globe) and Rosalie Craig (about to become the first woman to take on Stephen Sondheim’s Bobby in Company).

On stage, they pursued diversity by making sure that half the directors and actors were women

The encouragement and support they gave to people to develop their careers is also significant; many of their collaborators, including Terry and Craig and the playwright James Graham, are now major theatrical players in their own right.

On stage, they pursued diversity by making sure that half the directors and actors were women. Most dazzlingly, they fostered, developed and produced Phyllida Lloyd‘s all-female Shakespeare Trilogy, a major achievement which blew out of the water so many preconceptions about women, and Shakespeare, and women in Shakespeare, not to mention encouraging an extraordinary range of outreach work. Typically, they commissioned the trilogy after some critics suggested that the first production – Julius Caesar – was all very well, but should be seen as a one-off. "That made us think if it was going to get any real cultural purchase rather than just be an experimental firework, then we should do it again. We were looking to sustain something, " Rourke told me.

They opened up a place that for all its merits had sometimes resembled a private members club

But it isn’t just women who have benefited from their regime. They opened up a place that for all its merits had sometimes resembled a private members club and made it work for a more diverse and younger audience. Appointing Kwame Kwei-Armah as an associate was a stroke of genius; one recognised by the fact that he is soon to return to Britain to run the Young Vic. Also brilliant was the Young Free scheme which gave 10,000 young people free access and the Barclays Front Row scheme which offered £10 seats to thousands.

I liked their quieter achievements too: the preservation of a classic repertory that was worth rediscovering; the brilliant collaboration between Lyndsey Turner as director and Brian Friel as playwright that shone an illuminating light on his work in the last years of his life; the thoughtful, philosophical plays they commissioned such as Nick Payne’s Elegy and the under-valued Temple, by Steve Waters, which weren’t showy but were valuable additions to the national conversation. Fathers and Sons, adapted by Friel and directed by Turner, remains a production branded in my brain for its beauty and sensitivity.

Not everything came off. But all theatres have lulls

Not everything came off. Rourke is rightly proud of her support of James Graham and his Privacy and The Vote (broadcast live on TV on election night) were both radical and thought-provoking ways of discussing democracy in a theatrical setting; the musical Committee, based on the investigation into the collapse of the Kids Company charity and co-written by Rourke, may have looked like a good idea on paper but it should have been killed off early in the process. Recent revivals and commissions haven’t quite hit the heights of successes such as One Night in Miami and Coriolanus, starring Tom Hiddleston. But all theatres have lulls; Rourke and Pakenham’s Donmar has made more of a splash than most.

They were very much a team. "Not just in a practical way but in an intellectual and philosophical way," said Rourke. "In terms of the depth of those conversations you have about the meaning of what you are doing, the rightness of it." This accounts for their decision to leave together (Pakenham this June; Rourke early in 2019). Currently they are saying that their future may be together or separate, but I’d bank on it being a relationship that continues.

Perhaps she can tackle the sexism in the film industry as resolutely as she has addressed gender imbalance in theatre

I’d also bank on Rourke building on her interest in film which has started with the much-anticipated Mary Queen of Scots, due out in November 2018, written by Beau House of Cards Willimon and starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. Perhaps she can tackle the sexism in the film industry as resolutely as she has addressed gender imbalance in theatre. It will be a bigger mountain to climb, but I wouldn’t put it past her, with her Northern grit and high intelligence, to make some headway.

In the meantime, perhaps the Donmar could continue her philosophy of sustaining change by looking to appoint another woman artistic director, so something that was once extraordinary just becomes part of the normal pattern of things. I have a list in my head of very fine candidates if they need it.