David Lan was born in Cape Town where he trained as an actor. He began to write for the theatre and directed at Athol Fugard's theatre The Space. He moved to London in 1972.
His early plays include Painting a Wall (Almost Free Theatre 1974), Bird Child (Theatre Upstairs 1974), The Winter Dancers (Theatre Upstairs 1977), Red Earth (ICA 1978) and Sergeant Ola (Royal Court 1979). He trained as a Social Anthropologist at the LSE. After two years of field research in the Zambezi Valley (1980 to 1982), he was awarded a PhD for a thesis on religion and politics.
In 1985 he published what is regarded as a classic of modern social anthropology Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe. It continues to be taught widely throughout the world. He has travelled widely in Africa and written a number of films and drama documentaries for BBC TV set in various African countries including The Sunday Judge - Mozambique (1985), Dark City - South Africa (1990) and Welcome Home Comrades - Namibia (1990). He has also produced and directed documentaries for the BBC Omnibus series: Artist Unknown (1995) made for the Africa '95 exhibition at the Royal Academy and Royal Court Diaries (1996) about the redevelopment of the Royal Court Theatre. Later plays include Flight (RSC 1986), A Mouthful of Birds (with Caryl Churchill, Joint Stock / Royal Court 1986), Desire (Almeida 1990), Charley Tango (BBC radio 1995) and The Ends of the Earth (National Theatre 1996). In 1995 and 1996 he was writer-in-residence at the Royal Court Theatre where he worked closely with a number of younger writers and directors.
He has written two opera libretti, Tobias and the Angel [music by Jonathan Dove 1999] and Ion [music by Param Vir 2000] which were first performed at successive Almeida Opera Festivals as well as English versions of Hippoloytos and Ion by Euripides for the Almeida and the RSC, La Lupa by Verga for the RSC and Joshua Sobol's Ghetto for the RNT. His version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya was produced by the RSC at the Young Vic and his version of The Cherry Orchard by the RNT.
As a writer, he has worked with a wide range of directors including Max Stafford-Clark, Katie Mitchell, Stephen Pimlott, Trevor Nunn, Nicholas Wright, Stuart Laing, Andrei Serban, Simona Gonella, Nicholas Hytner, Howard Davies, and Stephen Daldry.
As a director, his early work included Pericles (RNT Studio), The Glass Menagerie (Watford) and 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (Young Vic)
He was appointed artistic director of the Young Vic in 2000 where he has established the Genesis Directors Project, the Jerwood Directors Award and the Young Vic Award.
He won an Olivier Award for the 2004 Young Vic season. Other awards include the John Whiting award, The George Orwell award and the Zurich International Television Prize. He led the £12.5 million rebuild of the Young Vic theatre and the two year Walkabout season while the theatre was closed.
His productions at the Young Vic include Julius Caesar (2000), A Raisin in the Sun (2001, revival and tour 2005), Doctor Faustus (2002), The Daughter-in-Law (2002), The Skin of Our Teeth (2004) and As You Like It at Wyndhams (2005) as part of Walkabout. In 2010, he directed August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone.