“There is something wrong when some of the best new British plays become no more than boutique studio events, only available to early bookers and insiders,” wrote playwright David Eldridge in The Guardian this week. It is exactly the same problem when some of the most anticipated classical productions, too, like the Donmar Warehouse’s Othello last year, inevitably sell out instantly, which its director Michael Grandage acknowledged in an Evening Standard interview “did turn into a bit of a bad news story because people couldn’t get in.”
But Grandage has rejected the claim that I made in a Guardian blog that the Donmar is “virtually a private members’ club, with membership and private donor schemes making tickets even harder to come by for the general public”.
He told me in a subsequent interview for The Stage a few months ago, “I don’t believe it is an exclusive club. The anomaly that was Othello was the first time it has happened in my five years of running the theatre; and the last time before that it happened was with The Blue Room with Nicole Kidman. I am genuinely sorry that more people could not have seen it; but is the alternative not to put it on, just because quite a lot of people didn’t get the experience of seeing it? We run a 250-seater theatre - that is what we do; and this one production happened to have the kind of cast that meant that more people wanted to see it [than we had seats]”.
But the Othello experience - and various other projects that were hatching — taught him something else important: “I had a feeling about there being more demand for the sort of work I was talking about than the 250 seats we have. And it occurred to me that this was the moment I could expand our brand,” he told me. Hence the fact that, next month, the Donmar is setting up a year-long residency at the West End’s Wyndham’s Theatre - and though actors will be paid a bit more than they do at the home base (according to the Standard, £750 per week instead of the Donmar’s prevailing £415), the added seating capacity means that tickets will have the same top price of £32.50.
So the Donmar is not just thinking outside the box, but producing outside of it now, too - and it could have a galvanising effect on the way the West End works. “What we’re hoping is that the whole Wyndham’s season will get audiences back in to see straight plays,” he told the Standard.
David Eldridge, whose Under the Blue Sky is currently one of only a handful of plays running there, points out that he worked out that by the fifth preview at the Duke of York’s, “more people had seen my play than in the entire original run” (at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs in 2000). But it’s not just the size of the audience that changed in the process, but their entire response to it, too: “What in a studio theatre, or in a rehearsal room, had been a painful titter becomes a huge wave of laughter in a West End theatre.”
Nick Hytner has long been making it his mission to get the younger generation of writers, including Eldridge (whose Market Boy was produced in the Olivier) and Rebecca Lenkiewicz (currently represented by Her Naked Skin) out of the studios and onto the National’s bigger public stages. As he told Michael Bilington at the beginning of this year, “We have a lot of commissions that will see the new generation tackling bigger stages. What I think dramatists are learning is that the classic repertoire, with the possible exception of Chekhov, depends on succulent star parts.” (Hytner told me last week in Edinburgh that he will duly be directing Richard Bean’s new play in the Olivier next year, too).
But it’s odd that Hytner has therefore programmed the November world premiere of David Hare’s latest play Gethsemane, for the Cottesloe, where a juicy subject matter - Labour Party’s donor scandals and a cast that includes Tamsin Greig - should again ensure that it sells out before it even opens. Previous Hare plays like The Permanent Way, Skylight and Racing Demon may have each begun their National lives in the Cottesloe as well, but each transferred to larger houses subsequently; could the National allowed one of our most senior dramatists to lead by example to the next generation to not require the security blanket of the National’s smallest house, but this time begin in a larger theatre where it is surely destined to continue?