How much does it cost to hire Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi and Jude Law? Five figures per week plus a percentage of the gross? Not if you’re Michael Grandage.
Each of those four names is headlining a production in his newest venture, Donmar West End, for the eye-widening sum of £415 per week. They’re just four reasons why, six years into his tenure as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, director-producer Grandage is London legit’s hottest hyphenate.
This a.d. is, to put it mildly, busy. His current revival of “The Chalk Garden” is a smash hit, and he’s putting together his 2009 season, which already includes Gillian Anderson in Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House.” Elsewhere, his “Frost/Nixon” tours the U.S. beginning in September, his U.K. revival of “Guys and Dolls” is a hit in Australia, and he and U.S. producer Arielle Tepper Madover will transfer Phyllida Lloyd’s hit production of Friedrich Schiller’s thriller “Mary Stuart” to Broadway in March. In 2010, he’s directing Benjamin Britten’s opera “Billy Budd” at Glyndebourne, and is in negotiations to direct two more operas at international houses in 2012. But it’s Donmar West End that is currently at the forefront.
Expanding beyond his 250-seat Donmar Warehouse home into Cameron Mackintosh’s newly warehouse refurbished 780-seat Wyndham’s Theater, Grandage runs a year-long operation beginning Sept. 5 with Chekhov’s early comedy “Ivanov.” Tom Stoppard has supplied a new translation, and Branagh will play the title role. Grandage helms.
“Twelfth Night” follows, beginning Dec. 5, with Jacobi playing Malvolio. Starting March 13, Judi Dench stars in “Madame de Sade,” Yukio Mishima’s little-known drama about the wife and mother of the infamous Marquis. And the season finale is “Hamlet” (May 29-Aug. 22) starring Jude Law, directed by Branagh.
How did he manage to attract major names for so little outlay? The idea began with accessibility.
“Most West End theaters charge up to £50 for plays. At the Donmar, we have a low-price ticket policy. Our top is £32.50 down to £7.50. But with productions selling out so quickly, it’s not possible to get the work to enough people and to enough of a cross-section of audiences.”
With that in mind, Grandage approached leading actors with a proposition: “We said, if we could offer them the Donmar experience but in a larger theater for a limited season with the company wage principal intact and no participation points or royalty pool, would they be interested? All four said yes.”
Their agreement was crucial in a season with unusually tight finances. These are not small plays, which makes this a high-risk proposition, since there has been no ticket-price hike. “Our top price is the same: £32.50 with a low of £10,” Grandage says. “That means the breakeven is between 80% and 90%. Under most circumstances, you’d have to be mad not to budget at around 58%-60%.”
But don’t prices this low have serious implications for the rest of the more expensive West End?
“We’re not a threat to the commercial community because we’re a one-off event,” Grandage explains. “We couldn’t do it forever, because absolutely no one is going to make any money out of it. Because Cameron Mackintosh is a producer as well as a theater owner, we have been lucky enough to have a very high level of care and collaboration, but we haven’t received a preferential deal. We’re paying a standard rental, because it’s very important that we should be respectful of the theater ecology.”
The diversity of the season is a reflection of the Donmar policy, with Grandage’s taste proving even more eclectic back at the home address. The next few months feature work as diverse as Jamie Lloyd’s revival of “Piaf” (Aug. 8-Sept. 20); Alan Rickman helming Strindberg’s “Creditors” (Sept. 25-Nov. 15); and John Tiffany helming “Be Near Me” (Jan. 22-March 14), a new play from a novel by Andrew O’Hagan, adapted by and starring Ian McDiarmid.
Until recently, transfers have been consciously few. Grandage insists they are never a motivation in the programming. Rave reviews for “The Chalk Garden” elicited numerous offers to move into the West End, but the company decided it would rather go out on a high than recast for a transfer. That resonates with Grandage’s commitment to a high level of execution for often unfamiliar work which, he argues, is what defines the Donmar brand:
“It means different things to different people, and our audience shifts according to the show. But we consistently attract people who evidently enjoy being taken on a journey. History suggests that you should give audiences what they think they like, in other words, what they already know. That’s not what we do.”