Michael Longhurst, the new artistic director of London’s Donmar Warehouse, explains why he is beginning his tenure with a 25-year-old play.
Michael Longhurst had never encountered Europe by David Greig until he pulled it off a shelf in a New York bookshop. “I sat and read it and it just screamed off the page at me,” he remembers.
Written in 1994, the play is set in an unimportant railway station in an unnamed central European country. Few trains call and it’s clear the town it serves is in decline.
An engaging double act develops between the station master (played by Ron Cook) and a refugee who camps out on his platform (Kevork Malikyan), while a romance develops between Adele and Katia (Faye Marsay and Natalia Tena).
Otherwise, the play takes a grim view of economic neglect and its consequences.
“The speech about a geographical border being a magic money line made me think about the lack of investment in places outside London,” says Longhurst.
“And the bits of the play about what happens to a town when a big factory closes… all that was prophetic in 1994 and it absolutely speaks to us now.”
Born in 1981, Longhurst is one of the UK’s leading freelance directors and was named as one of the 1,000 most influential Londoners by the Evening Standard in 2015.
His recent shows include the musical Caroline, or Change; Amadeus at the National Theatre; and Florian Zeller’s The Son, shortly to transfer to the Duke of York’s in London.
Having taken over the 251-seat Donmar, though, he knows he has wider responsibilities. “As a freelancer I was allowed just to care about the production,” he explains.
“Now I have to care about the building, the cultural strategy and the position of theatre in the landscape. But that’s part of the job of an artistic director.”
Longhurst says he did not hesitate to start his time at the Donmar with a play revival.
“What I want to do at the Donmar is make sure we’re telling the most important, relevant stories in the most exciting way,” he explains. “Having come across David’s play it seemed impossible not to put it front and centre.
“Obviously it wasn’t written about Brexit, but through the play we can understand more about why feelings are what they are.”
Longhurst wants what’s on the Donmar’s stage to address the big issues. Its next production will be Appropriate by US writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. first staged in New York in 2014.
First staged in New York in 2014, “it takes the form of a classic American family drama set in a home on the site of a former slave plantation.
“It’s a play about legacy and inherited trauma, but Branden has appropriated the forms of family drama to make us look at where we are now,” Longhurst continues.
“What I want the Donmar to do is to choose stories which challenge where we’re at now and speak to today’s concerns. Some will be new plays and some won’t be.”
Concerns have been raised at the increasing cost of buying tickets at subsidised theatres, an issue on which Longhurst will now need to have an opinion.
The highest ticket prices at the Donmar don’t usually exceed £40. But he says he’s aware of the need to keep prices low.
“The Donmar has always worked hard to make seats available at low cost,” he tells the BBC. “I know that in some theatres the top ticket prices have been going up, but I think that’s to subsidise the bottom prices.
“There have been 26,000 people who’ve come to see shows at the Donmar totally free and that’s an incredible thing. But we must keep doing it.
“We have to share the platform and the privilege we have to make theatre and share it as widely as we can.
“We need to shout loudly about what we’re offering and make theatre that people care about.”
Just around the corner for Longhurst is a challenge unique in the Donmar’s history.
The theatre is scheduled to close in 2021 so that much of the building’s structure can be rebuilt and revamped.
Shows will continue either in traditional West End houses or in found spaces. When the Donmar reopens, though, Longhurst says there won’t be major changes to the auditorium itself.
“The Donmar house is a precious space,” he explains. “There’s an intimacy those dimensions create and a connection to the performance. We’re not going to change that.”
Europe runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 10 August.