Former Sheffield Theatres artistic director Michael Grandage returns to the Crucible with Star Wars actor

It’s been a few years since we spoke with Michael Grandage.

Time was when he was a regular in these pages as the artistic director of one of the region’s most important theatres, but since leaving his post as head honcho at Sheffield Theatres in 2005 we’ve not had much cause to catch up with him.

Of course, he’s also been a little busy becoming arguably the brightest directorial star of British Theatre over the past 15 years.

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So to have him return to Sheffield next week, the place that had a defining impact on his career, on theatre and the region and on British theatre, is a rare treat.

Ian McDiarmid in The Lemon Table by Julian Barnes, coming to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield next week. (Picture: Marc Brenner).

Grandage is back in the North with a one-man show starring Ian McDiarmid.

The Lemon Table is a world premiere from Booker prize winning author Julian Barnes, and the Grandage-directed production is in Sheffield tonight and tomorrow on the grand stage of the Crucible.

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Director Michael Grandage in rehearsals. (Marc Brenner).

Since Grandage left the Steel City, there have been artistic directors who have each carried the baton quite brilliantly – Samuel West, Daniel Evans and incumbent Robert Hastie, but it is Grandage who redefined the city as a place of exceptional theatre during his five year tenure that began in 2000.

“What it has achieved over the past 25 years is such a wonderful and impressive record and it gives me enormous joy to have played a part in that. It has brought me more joy than perhaps anything in my career. Those five years in Sheffield were a turning point and so to come back, especially in the Crucible’s 50th year, is wonderful,” he says.

With three spaces, the Crucible, the Studio and the Lyceum – making it the biggest theatre complex outside the National Theatre in London – it was a big job for Grandage to take on and the city took something of a gamble handing him the keys back in 2000 when he was an actor with a CV that hadn’t exactly lit the world on fire and was a barely proven director. It was an inspired decision.

“I was always more ambitious for the theatre than I was for myself. Because I came to directing later, when I was in my 30s, I had sort of used up

my personal ambition so when I got here I realised that the thing that made sense was to be ambitious for the building,” he says.

He still sounds passionate today as he recounts what he told the board at his interview for the job.

“I wanted Sheffield to be not just a national, but an international destination. People would ask Kenneth Branagh (who Grandage brought to Sheffield to play Richard III in 2002) when he was coming to London and we took a lot of delight in telling them that there were motorways and railways and that if they wanted to see that production, then they had to come to Sheffield,” says Grandage.

It’s difficult to perhaps understand just how neglected ‘the regions’ were at the time and how revolutionary an idea Grandage’s was.

This was how the Guardian reported on Branagh’s return to the stage after a decade away, almost incredulous that return would be in the North:

"Branagh makes his stage comeback tonight – in a part-time Sheffield snooker venue, best known for hosting Steve Davis in the world championships... a move which reinforces the shift in audience attention from London’s West End to the regions.”

That was the challenge Grandage faced. Serendipity played a huge part in how he conquered the challenge.

“I knew if I could get the first season established then we could do something special here. A key part of what I wanted to do was to bring a classic to the rep, so I wanted to stage Marlowe’s Edward II,” he says.

He then heard on the grapevine that a production of Edward II was being built around a big name actor in London. While Grandage had all the pieces in place, all the London production had was the actor.

“It was Joseph Fiennes, right off the back of Shakespeare in Love so he was arguably one of the biggest actors in the world,” says Grandage.

“I convinced him that it would be good for him, he would be supporting regional theatre, we’d get a great audience and he said yes.

“I knew then people would start looking and saying ‘okay what’s going on in Sheffield then?’.”

And how. Branagh followed, as did Derek Jacobi, as did Ian McDiarmid.

And so we come full circle, with McDiarmid returning this week to the stage where he starred in Lear by Edward Bond in Grandage’s final season in 2005. It is a welcome return not just because of the people involved, but because theatre is back at all.

Grandage has felt it more than most – while he is directing this one-man performance, he is also at what must be the vertiginous helm of Frozen the musical both on Broadway and in the West End. His Michael Grandage Company is in the middle of making its first film and his constant impressive roster of productions keeps on coming.

“The last year has been a chance to stop and for everyone in the industry to really examine why we do what we do. A moment where we had to stop and ask the question, and for me the answer was to reach as many people as possible with what we make.”

Thanks to a revolution two decades ago, that continues to be an ambition fulfilled.

World premiere of The Lemon table

A play in two parts, The Lemon Table celebrates a love of music, live performance, and life itself. In the first half we are introduced to an obsessive concert goer who goes to unorthodox lengths to enjoy his evening.

In the other, the concert’s composer reflects on the music he has created – and looks back over his successes, his failures, and the life he has lived.

The Lemon Table directed by Michael Grandage and starring Ian McDiarmid is at the Sheffield Crucible until October 30.

To book tickets call the box office on 0114 2496000 or visit www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk