Two press announcements this week have brought the imminent and future ambitions of the Donmar and RSC into focus, with both seeking to simultaneously consolidate and expand their positions in the theatrical firmament. The Donmar is finally investing in property; not having hitherto owned their theatre, offices or rehearsal spaces, they’ve now bought a 125-year lease on their home base, taking it over in nine years’ time when the lease of their current landlord – and sometimes benefactor – Ambassador Theatre Group runs out.
Michael Grandage would not yet disclose the price they’ve paid for it, as negotiations have only just been concluded, but whatever it is can never be recovered from the box office alone, as with just 250 seats to fill a night and an annual operating budget of some £3million for the six shows they produce annually, it’s a tight fit to meet those costs already, with top-ups to the potential box office required from the raising of corporate sponsorship and their Arts Council grant. But in for a penny, in for a few more million: Grandage also announced a one-year West End residency at Wyndham’s for a production slate of four new shows there that will continue the Donmar ethos in town, including a Donmar ticket price structure with a top price of £32.50 and 130 seats available every night at the bottom price, too, of £10.
Deals are being sought everywhere – “concessions are being made by everyone”, said Grandage – from the theatre’s landlords Delfont Mackintosh to the actors, who will be employed on the Donmar’s “favoured nations” contracts with no one receiving points or hierarchical billing, but at what Grandage promised would be higher rates than Donmar salaries.
But even with reduced operating costs than a commercial producer would face in a similar situation – and the prospect of a Jude Law Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the kind of project a commercial producer would happily pay top dollar for (and charge even higher dollar for, in turn) – this is a high-risk strategy. It may significantly increase the presence of the Donmar in the West End from being a niche theatre for a cognoscenti who manage to get their act together to actually buy tickets in advance there to one that is more publicly available simply thanks to the greater availability of seats, but it also exposes the Donmar to unprecedented risk, too. As it is, Grandage spoke of how it only required one element to go wrong amongst their income streams for them to be seriously affected, whether it’s a production that under-performs at the box office or sponsorship that isn’t available; so I hope that the season pays off, in every sense.
Still, it’s an important step towards helping West End drama recover that this summer had started looking like a seriously endangered species, as I wrote here in July. Coupled with Haymarket launching its own season as a producing theatre under the auspices of Jonathan Kent next month, there are serious changes afoot in the dramatic ecology of the West End.
But while the Donmar builds a new relationship with Delfont Mackintosh, what has happened to the five-year plan that was announced just two years ago for the RSC to house their London seasons at their theatres? In the RSC’s announcement this week of their 2008 artistic programme, the plans for London include an emphasis on new writing, with five new plays scheduled, including two new pieces that will premiere here, alongside work that has already been announced to open at the Tricycle and Soho Theatre. Trevor Nunn’s double bill of The Seagull and King Lear has also long been announced as heading to the New London after its current world tour, while Michael Boyd’s eight-play History cycle is heading to the Roundhouse in April 2008. But the Delfont Mackintosh annual hire seems to have, perhaps temporarily, fallen by the wayside. Perhaps it was just a practical matter of theatrical availability as well as the right sort of shows for the company to want to bring to London: with the Novello about to open Desperately Seeking Susan, the Gielgud booked back-to-back with Chichester transfers for Macbeth and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and Wyndham’s taking the National’s The History Boys back after Shadowlands, there’s no room at the inn(s).