In 2008, Daniel Evans was a successful stage actor with a career flying ever higher, thanks to an Olivier award and Tony nomination for his role in the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George. But, “in a funk” after the show’s Broadway run, he decided to take a career left-turn and apply to be artistic director at Sheffield Theatres, despite precious little directing experience. It was a gamble that paid off: over the past four years, he has received fulsome acclaim, and this year he found himself in the final three in the selection process for the next director of the National Theatre.
While some might have regarded this personable and eloquent Welshman as a dark-horse candidate in the race to succeed Nicholas Hytner, those who have watched the growing confidence of Evans’s tenure were not in the least surprised. So what was his big idea for the South Bank? “I think one of the challenges it really does have to address is how it [can be] truly a national theatre and in a way that doesn’t mean beaming [plays] into cinemas. The thing that I kept harping on about [in the interview] was that I saw Ian McKellen play Richard III [in a 1990 NT touring production] at the New Theatre in Cardiff three times in one week. It made an indelible impression on me. You felt you were breathing the same air as Ian McKellen and it’s not the same as watching Ian McKellen on film.”
National adventures aside, it’s been another busy year for Evans with no sign of a let-up. His production of a new straight-play version of the hit British film The Full Monty was rapturously received in Sheffield and will transfer to the West End early next year. What’s the enduring appeal of those steelworkers-turned-strippers? “I think it’s [to do with the fact that] men are in an uncertain place at the moment”, he says. “Because [they] are now required to moisturise and all kinds of other things”. Do you moisturise? “Of course I do! I’ve just turned 40! In fact, I don’t know a man who doesn’t. Even my father moisturises nowadays.” The show’s treatment of masculine confusion also has another resonance for him. “For me, even though it’s set in Sheffield, it was a post-industrial community that felt very Welsh to me. Nothing has replaced the industry and so men are feeling at a loss.”
Before this, though, there’s the small matter of a major revival of the musical Oliver!, which Evans promises will be “darker” than the Cameron Mackintosh version that has dominated for the past 20 years. Evans has form with injecting life into the old warhorses of musical theatre, having directed a fresh-as-paint My Fair Lady, starring Dominic West, at Sheffield last Christmas. He talks about the scene of “grooming”, when Oliver is introduced to Fagin and the gang, and then makes a point that intriguingly echoes his thoughts on the National Theatre. “It’s also a tale of the regions versus the capital, because some of the first half happens in the provinces and there’s a sense that life there is tougher, there’s less money to go around. That’s interesting to me after reading the ROCC Report last week”. He’s referring to the new independent report on arts funding, Rebalancing our Cultural Capital, which alarmingly revealed that gross arts subsidy comes in at just £4.58 per head in the regions as opposed to £68.99 in London; it’s a statistic to which Evans keeps returning during our conversation.
“What a discrepancy! It’s wrong and it’s not democratic,” he says. “It’s strange, because one of the quotes at the beginning of the report is from David Cameron, saying that things have been centred on London for far too long. You think, well, yes, but you’re part of an ideology that is increasing the divide between the centre and what he calls ‘the periphery’.” This sort of talk is Evans in his element; he admits that he revels in the “political” side of his job. “With the role comes huge responsibility and that’s something I craved. As merely an actor I found it frustrating, because I craved power in the best sense of the word, not in a megalomaniacal way, but in a way that meant I could make a difference.”
Despite a tough country-wide funding climate and a 20 per cent cut in his theatre’s local authority grant, Evans has turned Sheffield into one of the buzziest venues in the country, as evidenced by a recent four wins at the UK Theatre Awards. He plans to put his money where his mouth is in terms of education and community engagement by directing the 100-strong community play himself next year. He also wants to continue with his acting career, having recently taken part in a New York workshop for an intriguing-sounding gay spin on the classic Sondheim musical Company. “I have a very active super-ego and he’s quite a harsh critic, so I like to work to keep him at bay,” says this self-declared workaholic wryly.
Evans has been determined to succeed ever since his childhood in the Rhondda Valley, where he was bullied throughout school. “I think I was bullied for being gay, even before I knew I was gay. You get called names you don’t even understand and you find out later in life what they mean and you think, ‘How did they know and I didn’t?’” He sought refuge in the drama group, “because it was a place where I was somehow applauded for being myself, literally and metaphorically”. Weekend trips to the National and the RSC strengthened his resolve. “It taught me there was a world elsewhere and once you see that world it’s hard then not to be in it. I genuinely do believe that the theatre has the capacity to change people’s lives. It changed mine”.
What if, by some peculiar chance, he should bump into the biggest school bully of the lot when he leaves this interview? He hesitates. “I hope I could find it in myself to be generous”.
You wouldn’t want to punch him? “I think a part of me would, but there’s no point in continuing that cycle of violence. The way to break it is …” he trails off. Is to be as successful as Daniel Evans, I’d say. That is surely the most elegant form of revenge.