London theatre boss on signing Adrien Brody: he’ll be paid the same as everyone else

Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse Tim Sheader
Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse Tim Sheader - Rii Schroer

“There’s something special about the idea that someone couldn’t get into a show because there weren’t any tickets left,” Timothy Sheader declares. It’s a surprising admission from one of our most talented directors, particularly in an age where the mantra is all about accessibility and inclusion.

At the Donmar Warehouse, which Sheader was appointed to run last summer, the prospect of there being both many happy – and by extension unhappy – punters looks a racing certainty given that the first show of his tenure entails a significant casting coup.

As he reveals to the Telegraph, Adrien Brody (best-known for The Pianist, for which he won an Oscar aged 29) will make his UK stage debut in The Fear of 13. That’s an adaptation (by Lindsey Ferrentino) of the admired 2015 documentary about an American man called Nick Yarris who spent 22 years on Death Row after being wrongly convicted in 1982, at the age of 21, of a rape-murder.

“You want to open with a big splash, right?” says Sheader, a brightly alert figure, considered and confident, who seems younger than his 52 years. Having said yes to the project within a week, Brody (who hasn’t trod the boards since his early career) is, after a fashion, slumming it: the (undisclosed) wage he’ll take will be the company standard one: “They all get the same salary, whether it’s their first job or they’re an Academy award-winner.”

Whether or not Brody will see the stage-door frenzy experienced by Spider-Man star Tom Holland in Romeo and Juliet or David Tennant in the Donmar’s Macbeth remains to be seen; and how he will respond to fans is another question. “It’s artist by artist, isn’t it?” Sheader says. “And what their relationship is to the public, and to social media. Some people love it. Some people hate it.”

Adrien Brody will make his UK stage debut in The Fear of 13 at the Donmar
Adrien Brody will make his UK stage debut in The Fear of 13 at the Donmar - Aliah Anderson/Getty Images

Brody’s debut fits neatly into the Donmar’s history of famous names (Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel Weisz, Nicole Kidman) appearing in a venue so intimate (at 251 seats) it almost feels homely, albeit toughened up by its signature brick back-wall. Its bosses (notably Sam Mendes, Michael Grandage and Josie Rourke) have tended to go on to direct films, but Sheader can’t see himself following in their footsteps. “That won’t be my trajectory – going to Hollywood. I’m older.”

Such has been its renown that the Donmar has sometimes been the victim of its own success, perceived as impossible to get into. While pointing out the many routes to obtain tickets, Sheader is unapologetic: “The Donmar is a boutique theatre. We should celebrate that. Just as nobody wants to be in the same dress everybody else is wearing, or the same shoes, they also want to be part of something that’s theatrically special.”

Elsewhere in the season, Sheader himself will direct Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, a racy, recent Broadway through-sung musical based on War and Peace. There will be a fresh sprinkling of star-dust in the New Year: Tamsin Greig and Celia Imrie will join forces for Backstroke. In this new play (written and directed) by Anna Mackmin, a middle-aged woman (Greig) is trying to care for her elderly mother (Imrie), hospitalised with a stroke, while looking after her daughter. The opening salvo concludes with a revival of Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage (the American playwright much staged at the Donmar), about a black seamstress in early 20th century New York – to be played by American actress Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black).

If there’s a thread to this season, and to Sheader’s work (he ran the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park for 16 years, this year’s programme his last), it’s combining spectacle with social commitment. He brought grit and glitz to his Olivier-winning Jesus Christ Superstar. And while some innovations caused upset – “A Tale of Two Titties”, jeered the Sun at a risqué part-modernised take on Dickens – he makes no apology for pushing things: “I want work that’s entertaining and full of ideas. I don’t want to make people eat their greens but I want to give them lots to chew on.”

Jesus Christ Superstar performed at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park
Jesus Christ Superstar performed at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park - Alastair Muir

Sheader doesn’t come from a theatrical background. He grew up in Scarborough. His father worked for a coach and bus manufacturer, his mother is a dental nurse and his brother became a local builder. “I’m the first person in my family to work in the arts, and the first to go to university” (he studied Law with French at Birmingham).

His school years in the 1980s sound tough – “I was growing up at a difficult time for a young, queer person – we certainly used the word ‘queer’ differently back then. I got bullied.” Theatre threw him a life-line. “There was a school-trip to the Stephen Joseph Theatre and I remember the lights going down and feeling I wanted that experience in my life.”

The irony of running a building is that it’s likely to test an artistic director’s love of theatre. As well as the pressing concerns about footfall, finances and leaking loos, there are the myriad hot-button issues affecting today’s theatre culture. Sheader has no truck with the continual furore around trigger warnings (“I think the debate is really boring. It’s content advice”) and is also concerned that conformism and caution can creep in, given the artistic and financial fear of failure.

Though not speaking directly to the notorious recent Sheridan Smith ‘musical’, Opening Night, he’s passionate about the risks and rewards of musical theatre: “It’s harder to get right than most other forms. Often the results are risible, but music reaches deeper than spoken word. Looking more widely at theatre-making, he says: “We need to have turkeys. You learn from them, otherwise everything is pre-made to order.”

'I've lost a thousand seats but gained a roof': Tim Sheader on his new position at the Donmar
'I've lost a thousand seats but gained a roof': Tim Sheader on his new position at the Donmar - Rii Schroer

His curtain-raising programming of The Fear of 13 indicates how deeply he understands the challenge to live performance posed by streaming giants like Netflix. “It would be foolish to say we’re not competing with streaming television, of course we are. It has changed the landscape immeasurably, particularly in the pandemic when a lot of theatre audiences discovered it. We [in theatre] now need to grab people by the scruff of the neck and say ‘Hi, we’re over here!’” He considers theatrically capitalising on the vogue for non-fiction (documentaries, podcasts) as one way forward.

Sheader will also be watching the results of the General Election closely. The Donmar lost its regular Arts Council funding (of over £500,000 per annum) in 2022, as part of the ‘levelling-up’ agenda aimed at distributing more money outside the capital. Sheader is sanguine about the loss (“It was seven per cent of our income”) – even so, he looks forward to a shift in temperature, or at least tone.

“I think it will be [financial] business as usual for the arts in the immediate future [if Labour get in] but there’ll be a crucial difference. It’s hard to lose the taste of the last few years in terms of the minimalising of the arts and artists. Whether [Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport] Thangam Debbonaire holds onto her seat, we don’t yet know. But the rhetoric is different – she speaks with passion, inspiration and knowledge. Fundamentally artists will know we have a department that believes in us.”

“I’ve lost a thousand seats but gained a roof,” he likes to quip a propos his move from his al-fresco base to his snug new home. All he needs to do now is raise that roof, on a regular basis. No pressure.


Priority booking opens today; public booking opens on July 3, Info: donmarwarehouse.com