Why Michael Longhurst's Donmar appointment is more than just a return to the theatre's white male tradition

Sarah Crompton reflects on the news of Josie Rourke’s successor

Donmar Warehouse
Donmar Warehouse
© Johan Persson
I met Michael Longhurst for the first time when he was rehearsing Amadeus at the National Theatre with the entire cast and a full orchestra. There was a lot going on, and it wasn't all going entirely to plan. So, what was noticeable was the calm sweetness with which he answered my questions – and the high intelligence he brought to them.

It was a brief encounter, but one which, combined with his illustrious track record as a director, makes me think he is an inspired appointment to take over the helm of the Donmar Warehouse from March next year, when the current artistic director Josie Rourke steps down. I had hoped that a woman would be appointed. Rourke and her executive director Kate Pakenham (also leaving) had brought about genuine change in terms of gender equality and diverse thinking, not least in their ground-breaking Shakespeare Trilogy, directed by Phyllida Lloyd.

To choose a woman to succeed Rourke would have had the effect of cementing the ideas that they have espoused

To choose a woman to succeed Rourke would have had the effect of cementing the ideas that they have espoused. Instead, Longhurst looks like a return to the white male tradition established by Rourke's predecessors, Sam Mendes and Michael Grandage. There are many women waiting in the wings for their chance to run a theatre. It would have been cheering to see one of them given a chance.

Michael Longhurst
Michael Longhurst
© David Jensen

But if we climb over that uncomfortable fact, there's no doubting that Longhurst is a good choice. His reputation as an all-round good egg precedes him. Rourke said in her statement that, having collaborated with him both at the Bush and the Donmar, she knows he is "one of the most gifted, original and impressive directors in the country" and "a deeply kind and thoughtful leader who commands huge respect."

Longhurst is bold and radical but never at the expense of distorting the text in front of him

It's hard to disagree. His directorial record in plays such as Constellations, Linda, A Number and They Drink It In The Congo, and also – interestingly – plays with music and musicals such as Amadeus, Caroline, or Change and Carmen Disruption, is one to reckon with. These are productions that stick in the mind and the heart and indicate a man who is completely in command of his material. Equally, at a time when directors tend to be divided into those whose interventions serve the play and those whose interventions serve themselves, he is very much in the former camp. He is bold and radical but never at the expense of distorting the text in front of him.

But his generous qualities as a man are also relevant. When he takes over the Donmar it will be the 37-year-old's first time in charge of a building and everyone knows that there is no real equation between directorial talent and the ability to run a theatre. Talk to any artistic director and you realise the balls they are juggling at any given moment are many, and it is incredibly easy to drop one. Only the strong thrive.

Yet the omens are good for Longhurst. As my rehearsal room encounter proved, he's someone who thrives in a busy, collegiate environment; he relishes a challenge and he has the temperament to cope with the difficulties. It takes a good spirit as well as a good director to be an effective boss; Michael Longhurst is both. His Donmar Warehouse should be one to watch.