This year’s Alumni Award Winner for Arts and Media is Matthew Warchus, Artistic Director of the Old Vic and an award-winning theatre and film director.
Matthew Warchus has directed some of the most extraordinary stories for stage and film, including Art (1997), Hamlet (1998), True West (2000), The Lord of the Rings (2007), Ghost The Musical (2011) and Pride (2014). His stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s much loved children’s novel Matilda, written by Dennis Kelly with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, won seven Olivier Awards in 2012, including Best Director, and five Tony awards in 2013, and a film adaptation starring Emma Thompson was released at the end of last year.
Born in a small village in Yorkshire, Matthew grew up miles away from a theatre but fell in love with pantomime from a young age. As a teen he did some acting for the National Youth Theatre and worked as stage crew building sets for the York Theatre Royal, but it wasn’t until the end of his Music and Drama degree at Bristol that he considered a career in the arts.
‘I studied Music and Drama because I loved the subjects, not because I thought of them as a career path into a profession’, says Matthew. ‘Going to Bristol was a big fork in the road for me – I fell in love with the place and the course, and everything about it was so uplifting and empowering. Bristol itself is one of my favourite cities in the world – it’s so lively, with so much music and comedy.’
Matthew’s directorial debut came in the summer of his final year of university when he directed a production of Ben Johnson’s Sejanus: His Fall at Edinburgh Festival. Widely praised by the press, he then went on to direct at the National Youth Theatre, before a two-year stint as Resident Director at Bristol Old Vic.
‘A lot of people ask me how to get into directing’, says Matthew. ‘Certainly, for my generation, there were very few director training courses. People came from all sorts of professional backgrounds and had their own odd routes in. You might say a major turning point was directing Sejanus: His Fall – it was the first time I risked calling myself a director, and it was the show people wanted to talk to me about in job interviews thereafter.’
Matthew left Bristol Old Vic for the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, where he was invited by Artistic Director Jude Kelly to put on five productions of his choice. ‘It’s unheard of really,’ Matthew says, ‘and I wish I could do the same for a young director at the Old Vic. I’m a believer that if you put a lot of responsibility on somebody, you can get really good results.’ One of these productions was True West with Mark Rylance, who had a major influence on Matthew: ‘the better the actors and collaborators you work with, the better you get as a director’.
Since then, Matthew has worked with some of the biggest names in the industry and directed some of the most successful stage shows in the West End and Broadway. He has directed theatre, opera and film, including Pride (2014) which won a BAFTA in 2015 and Best British Independent Film in 2014, among others, and in 2015 he became Artistic Director of the Old Vic.
Known for his eclectic tastes and musical adaptations, Matthew draws inspiration from a wide range of influences – from his love of pantomime, to Steven Spielberg films – and is interested in what he describes as ‘making artistic things popular, and popular things artistic.’
‘A lot of people think small is truthful and big is fake’, he says, ‘but what I’m after is big and truthful. That is something that has cropped up a lot in my work, from the Alan Ayckbourn trilogy Norman Conquests to the performances of the Wormwoods and Trunchball in Matilda.’
Of his 2023 Alumni Award for Arts and Media, Matthew said: ‘This award is like a measuring stick, taking me back to when I was a kid about to leave Drax, a small village in the middle of nowhere, to study at university in Bristol. It was my first time living in a city; my first time meeting people with shared interests and passions; the first time I felt like I knew who I was.
‘It measures from that moment to where I am now, and it’s very emotional for me to have cause to look back on my life like this and realise how lucky I have been and how influential Bristol has been on my path. I’m very grateful for the chance to think about my life and work in this way.’
Each year, the University of Bristol recognises alumni who have made remarkable contributions to society through the Alumni Awards. You can see the full list of our 2023 winners on our website.