Michael Grandage: Grand designs

Michael Grandage was on a hiding to nothing when he succeeded Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse. But he has kept it the hottest ticket in town - and he directs in Sheffield, too. Paul Taylor meets him
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You can imagine how Lady Bracknell might have viewed the matter: "To be wedded to one theatre, Mr Grandage, may be regarded as importunate. To be wedded to two seems like bigamy." But you'd be hard put to find anyone in the profession who begrudges Michael Grandage his unique dual role.

In 2002, he succeeded Sam Mendes as the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, in London. He quickly made mincemeat of the conventional wisdom that Mendes would be a hard act to follow, with an eclectic, sell-out season (more orientated towards the European repertoire) that is currently up for eight Olivier awards. Grandage is nominated for best director, and two of his leading players (Michael Sheen in Caligula and Kelly Reilly in After Miss Julie) are strong contenders for best actor and actress, respectively.

But he made it a stipulation of accepting the Donmar job that he would not have to give up his post as associate director of Sheffield's Crucible Theatre. This is a venue that he has put firmly back on the map, and not just through his skill at luring big-name screen stars with a theatrical pedigree to work for him (Joseph Fiennes as Edward II; Kenneth Branagh as Richard III). For example, the Crucible won a Peter Brook Empty Space Award for its visionary retrospective on the neglected, brilliant writing of Peter Gill - a retrospective whose centrepiece was a main-stage premiere of the dramatist's latest work, Original Sin, an ambitious, large-cast revamp of Wedekind's "Lulu" plays, with a boy taking the place of the iconic heroine.

Consequently, Grandage's is a life crowded with incident. "I've certainly an intimate relationship with St Pancras," he laughs. We are meeting at the Jerwood Space, where he is rehearsing a revival, starring Diana Rigg, of Tennessee Williams's Suddenly Last Summer, which will open at Sheffield's Lyceum Theatre before going on a tour that stretches as far as Edinburgh and Plymouth. It's not the only example of Grandage's work that will be touring the country this year: in a welcome departure from previous policy, the Donmar is to reach out to the regions with a production of Pirandello's Henry IV (starring Ian McDiarmid in the central role) that hits the London stage in May. And next week, in a rare instance of wearing both his hats at once, Grandage will bring into the Donmar World Music, a complex study of Europe's troubled relations with Africa by Steve Waters, which began its life at the Crucible Theatre.

The boyishly handsome 41-year-old former actor looks a good decade younger than his age, though not in any way that suggests a Dorian Gray-style portrait hidden at home. He's frank, funny, upfront; you get the impression that what you see is what you get. It's hard to imagine how he could be less hung up about succeeding Mendes. Justifying the Donmar/Sheffield juggling act, he points out that the board allowed Mendes to moonlight on outside projects (productions at the National, filming American Beauty, etc). Concurrent work at the Crucible (and nothing more) is his own equivalent to that.

He believes that London "is looking much more to regional theatre for guidance - just in sheer programming terms", and he attributes the revitalisation to the Arts Council's extraordinary response to the Boyden report. "The Government decided to give the Arts Council money, and the Arts Council decided to use it very wisely - ruthlessly as well," Grandage says. "Not something we associate with it at all. The idea of rewarding theatres that appear to be doing well and closing those that have been limping along without any kind of community responsibility at all - this has absolutely enhanced the regional-theatre landscape. A perfect example: we are about to open The Crucible in the Crucible next week. It has a cast of 22. With 22 actors playing to 1,000 people every night, which is our capacity, we cannot make money on this show. But that is why we have subsidy. We must be very clear about that. And God, is The Crucible a play for now."

New money has coincided with a transfusion of new blood into the top echelons (for example, David Farr and Simon Reade at Bristol Old Vic, and Gemma Bodinetz and Deborah Aydon at the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse), thus ending "the 25 years or so of musical chairs among the same few individuals". But does running the Donmar as well as the Crucible give Grandage an unfair advantage when it comes to West End transfers and so forth? Grandage maintains that the transfer of World Music is an exception to the rule, brought about because, firstly, it's one of the few productions that could plausibly be shifted from a 70ft thrust stage into a studio environment and, secondly, because it ran for only 12 performances at the Crucible's writing festival, where it had "quite a profound effect", and he felt that it deserved a longer life. For the most part, he wants to keep the identity of his two homes - "one a huge subsidised theatre that serves a community, the other a tiny subsidised theatre that sits, geographically, in the middle of the West End, where you can't identify a community" - sharply distinct.

Grandage's rise is all the more remarkable, given his relatively late start as a director. His acting career began well. He was directed several times by Nick Hytner. He played Rodrigo in Trevor Nunn's celebrated production of Othello. But, as he entered his thirties, the parts started to peter out and he suffered a terrible crisis of confidence. Raising this subject with him led me into what could have been an excruciating faux pas. When The Times reported his appointment at the Donmar, the headline was: "Stage fright actor to run Donmar". This tickled me as constituting a ripe example of the way the press never lets you forget your inglorious past. It launched a running gag with friends in which we made up ever wilder parodies: "Childhood Bed-wetter to Shake Up RSC", "Christmas Night Mistake to Helm Bayreuth" etc. The trouble was that I misremembered how it had all started and found myself asking Grandage about his childhood bed-wetting. The Peter Pan face registered extreme puzzlement, before - and this is a great tribute to his sense of humour - he threw back his head and laughed: "Now you must have made that up." All too true, alas...

He says that it took him "a long time to discover that I didn't have the temperament to be an actor. When I was out of work and on the dole, I just went into free fall." He evidently thrives on a life that has more structure and control. You wonder whether those dark nights of the soul help to account for the way that he is drawn, as a director, to plays that deal with questions of identity and madness, and focus on extremist heroes who either try to dispense with a conventional framework altogether, like Caligula, or overcompensate in the opposite direction, like the protagonist of the forthcoming Pirandello play who chooses to cling to the delusion that he is Henry IV as his armour against the buffetings of chance.

At the moment, Grandage is enjoying rehearsals of Suddenly Last Summer, Williams's hothouse melodrama of monstrous matriarchs and symbolic (and actual) cannibalism. "If you define directing as creating a world that is fantastically heightened and then trying to make a group of actors go to a heightened place within that world, then this is the play for that - more than any other, I think."

As I prepare to leave, we revert to the topic of his two hats. "When Sheffield comes to a natural end," he declares, "I'll concentrate on the Donmar. I won't be looking for another regional theatre." Somehow, though, I think we can safely say that there will be no shortage of offers.

'The Crucible', Crucible Theatre, Sheffield; 'Suddenly Last Summer', Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield. To 28 February (0114-249 6000)