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Changing of the Guard: RSC

Our final interview in our series on theatreland's new artistic directors is with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Michael Boyd, who has just announced his inaugural Stratford season, featuring Tragedies, a refocus on ensemble & new works.

By • West End


Previously an associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Boyd was named as successor to an embattled Adrian Noble as artistic director in July 2002 and officially took over at the start of April 2003.

Born in Northern Ireland, Boyd was raised in London and in Scotland, where he studied at Edinburgh University, directing student productions before getting British Council funding to train under Anatoly Efros at the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre in Moscow.

Back in the UK, Boyd's early productions included Risky City and The Mystery Plays (Coventry's Belgrade Theatre), Hard to Get (Edinburgh's Traverse) and, as associate director at Sheffield Crucible, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Howard Barker's A Passion in Six Days.

In 1985, Boyd founded Glasgow's Tron Theatre and, over the next 11 years as artistic director, established it as a major new theatre, providing a showcase for contemporary Scottish writing. Amongst his Tron productions were: Alasdair Gray's McGrotty and Ludmilla, Tremblay's The Real Wurld, an adaptation of Ted Hughes' Crow, CP Taylor's Good, The Trick Is to Keep Breathing (his own adaptation of Janice Galloway's novel, featuring Siobhan Redmond) and, perhaps most famously, Macbeth, with Iain Glen in the title role.

Boyd's first Royal Shakespeare Company assignment came in 1994, a production of John Ford's The Broken Heart in Swan Theatre. In 1996, he was appointed an RSC associate, going on to direct productions, for Stratford, London and elsewhere, of Much Ado About Nothing, The Spanish Tragedy, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.

In 2000, Boyd played a pivotal role in the RSC's grand millennium project, the This England staging of the complete cycle of Shakespeare's Histories. After their initial runs in Stratford, his productions of Henry VI Parts I, II and III and Richard III transferred to London, where they won Boyd an Olivier Award for Best Director.

Last week (See News, 30 Sep 2003), in his new role as RSC artistic director, Boyd revealed full details of his own, much-anticipated inaugural season at Stratford. In addition to programming highlights (including seasons of Shakespeare's Tragedies and works from the Spanish Golden Age as well as the first annual New Work Festival) and some exciting casting (not least Judi Dench, Antony Sher and Sian Thomas as well as Corin Redgrave as King Lear and Toby Stephens as Hamlet), Boyd's announcement was notable for its re-establishment of a core ensemble at the RSC and a doubling of rehearsal times.


What made you want to be a theatre director
in the first place?

Because I thought I was a better director than I was an actor or writer. How did I come to that conclusion? Trial and error.

Prior to your RSC appointment, what would you view as
your greatest professional achievement?

Founding a small theatre in Glasgow called the Tron and staying with it for 11 years to the point where, in the last five years, I'm not sure to be honest that we did a single bad show and in fact we did some really rather lovely ones. I also hugely enjoyed a lot of the work I'd done for the Royal Shakespeare Company before I became artistic director. The first job - John Ford's The Broken Heart with Iain Glen and Emma Fielding (1984/85) - will always be special, and also the Dream with Aidan McArdle, Josette Simon and Nicholas Jones (1999/2000) and Henry VI with Richard III (2000/2001, part of the This England complete cycle of Shakepeare's History plays), which was the third tetralogy that played Stratford and London. That was the most gargantuan thing that I've ever done. I guess the governors of the RSC decided, if he can survive that, he can probably survive being artistic director of the RSC.

What was the first RSC production you saw?

It was Hansel and Gretal by David Rudkin at The Other Place, I think, around 1980. I was a trainee theatre director at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry at the time and Stratford seemed like quite a cute little rural enclave to me, working in a - if you like - a 'proper' city. And I enjoyed the production very much. It was a very fun play, strongly acted and there was a great atmosphere in the auditorium.

During much of my career, I lived in Scotland so journeyed southwards infrequently, usually to London where I tended to see the work of Peter Gill at the Riverside Studios. In Scotland around then, I was taken with the work of Giles Havergal and Philip Prowse at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, the new work at the Traverse in Edinburgh and the populist, activist work of 7:84. All of them had a stronger impact on me than the Royal Shakespeare Company work. Although I was aware of tremendous landmark productions like, nearly ten years previously, Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I didn't see, and Nicholas Nickleby, I wasn't a huge RSC aficionado.

Why did you want the job of artistic director of the RSC?

I looked at the size of ambition that was possible with the company. I suppose, having been a trainee director in Moscow at the end of the Seventies, I was interested in the European aspect of Peter Hall and Peter Brook and Michel St-Denis' early ambitions for the RSC, and I saw there being a possibility of, in a way, joining up the ensemble achievements of the great Eastern European companies with the great literary English tradition, obviously headed up by Shakespeare, and a commitment to new work that was very strong in the early days - you know, the first show I saw at the RSC was a new play. The RSC seems to me to be big enough to buck the trend of theatrical opportunism. There was a chance to build something a bit more idealistic within the RSC that was like a community of courage and trust that could push the boat out. I think that was what really attracted me, the idea of what would happen if you did renew the vows of company, if you did re-invent the face of the company and the potential collective making. So I got intrigued by that.

What do you consider your most immediate
challenges & rewards in the job?

The reinvention I've described is the biggest challenge, and with that comes all the other challenges of running a big arts organisation. Because in order to make it a reality you have to balance your books you have to you know the whole thing has to make sense.

As far as rewards, so far so good in terms of reactions to me auditioning my ambitions in front of folk - most people seem to think I'm not mad so that's good. We've taken good strides in terms of the balancing books side of things. I think we're being quite prudent in the way we're planning but ambitious as well. We are able to raise the ceiling of our ambition in terms of what we do in the rehearsal room. We're planning longer rehearsal periods in the effort of deepening our enquiry into the work and getting people to celebrate the ensemble spirit - for instance, giving understudies more time to prepare so that it becomes a real opportunity for them, not a chore, and things like that. Yes, I guess so far so good I would say, slow but steady.

What about the challenge of finding a London home
& deciding on redevelopment plans for Stratford?

It's very pressing and important to re-ignite our engagement with our large and faithful London audience. A precondition for that is that, at the very least, there is a recognisable home for the centre of our work. We've set ourselves the start of the new year as our deadline for securing that, so that next year's Tragedies ensemble can move into the London home. So we've got the rest of this autumn and winter to finalise things. I think it's achievable. Inevitably, nothing will be perfect, but we'll have started that process of regularising our London presence again.

In terms of the Stratford redevelopment, there's an awful lot more work still to be done on that. We've got fantastic ideas - in a sense, I think the ideas stage has gone as far as it can. Now, before we really start testing our ideas on the public, we have to satisfy ourselves that they add up economically so that we don't become one of Richard Eyre's "gleaming kitchens with not a bite to eat". We have to thoroughly satisfy ourselves and our key stakeholders that we're not having gorgeous ideas that are actually impractical in terms of the economics of the company. The most important thing is that whatever we do promotes the conditions for the best possible work that we can do. In terms of space, I think we are already there, but in terms of how those spaces will affect the economy of the company, that's our next stage and that's what we're just embarking on now.

What is your overriding vision for the RSC? How will you measure success in achieving it at the end of your first five-year contract?

The vision is to do with company. Our distinct offer as a company is a more profound enquiry over a longer period of time in an atmosphere of trust and experiment. We're uniquely placed to create that, so that's what it's got to be about. And I think it's about exploring Shakespeare's legacy now, and it's about celebrating our ability to paint on a big canvas.

At the end of five years, I would want real evidence that the changes in our way of working were producing work of daring and quality and insight. That's the most important thing. You know, you can make policy changes, you can change the way an organisation works, the way rehearsals work, and then you want to see if there's some fruit. And the fruit would be being able to be cutting edge and experimental and growing, to find a new following while not alienating our existing following.

What do you consider the highlights of your just-announced first season?

I think it's a really important time to look at tragedy - at a time when people use the word 'tragedy' and 'tragic' like it was a sort of floppy glove puppet with no content and nothing in it and yet a time of great strife, division and suffering that increasingly we are unable to avert our gaze from, even as relatively comfortable Westerners. It's a sort of outmoded form. Playwrights don't say "I'm writing a tragedy" any more, so it's due revisiting. I hope the Spanish Golden Age season says something about a shift in the Royal Shakespeare Company's internationalism, that we are curious about world culture even though we are very proud and excited about our house playwright. We know no man is an island and no culture is an island, even though we like to pretend we are sometimes. I suppose an important symbolic statement, too, is that I'm directing Hamlet with Toby Stephens in this inaugural season and I'm also doing a new piece of work. I'm straddling those two horses, the new work and the classical. I think the moment you lose track of your roots, your new works become more shallow and meretricious; and if you lose track of your obligation to explore contemporary culture, your classical work will become non compos mentis. Keeping those two yoked together is key.

In a recent Big Debate poll, Hamlet was named as one of the
five most over-presented plays. Do you agree?

John Lennon said, "God is a concept by which we measure our pain". Hamlet is a part by which we measure our time in a way. It's there to be visited by the major actors of their time and there's always room for more. He's such an ambiguous creature, and with each production you make new decisions and see how it turns out. I haven't a fixed view yet on what version we'll use. I'm still getting to know the various texts and their various foibles. I don't think our production will be 90 minutes, but I'm not sure it'll be four and a half hours either, somewhere in between.

What are your plans beyond this first season?

Well, 2005 is the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, and I'm very interested in celebrating Shakespeare as a dramatist of schism, as quite possibly someone torn between his Catholic roots and the Protestant hegemony of his time, torn between Stratford and London. I don't see Shakespeare as the great unifying oak of English culture, I see him as the extraordinary ringmaster of implacably disparate horses and that's what makes his work so brilliant. The Gunpowder Plot seems a good way to address that. It's also a good time to consider terrorism and what that word means. So there'll be a big look at Shakespeare's work in the context of a divided English society and the Renaissance and a look at our divided society now in new works. As we're taking a major look at tragedy next year, maybe the year afterwards we'll take a look at comedy - that could be a relief. Another particularly insane project that I'm very keen to do around 2006 is a major 'complete works of Shakespeare' festival in Stratford. Everyone I've spoken to about it is really interested in taking part. I think it could be a right old national and international knees up. You'd have to give yourself the whole year, but during the course of that year, you can do every single Shakespeare play, performed by lots of different companies including the RSC. Maybe we'd even get the Reduced Shakespeare Company involved. That would be lovely. I don't think they've ever been to Stratford, it would be a great opportunity to get them up there.

What would you say to entice other first-time visitors to Stratford?

Stop rushing about and take some time out - dozy about on the river, go for nice long walks and have your head expanded with some wonderful Shakespeare productions. Theatre is not something that should be squeezed in between work and eating and sleeping. In Stratford, you've got the opportunity to come into a theatre rested and open, and you've got the time afterwards to let it ripple through your head. Don't kid yourself that you can't afford the time, because you can't afford not to have the time.

- Michael Boyd was speaking to Terri Paddock


For more information on Boyd's appointment & his programming at the new RSC, see the following:

  • "Boyd Sets New Work & Tragedies for RSC Ensemble" (News, 30 Sep 2003)
  • "RSC Festival Features Redgrave, Thomas, Stephens" (News, 30 Sep 2003)
  • "Chiefs Nunn & Noble Step Down Today at NT & RSC" (News, 31 Mar 2003)
  • "ACE Gives Big Increases to Chichester, NT, Donmar" (News, 26 Mar 2003)
  • "Boyd Sees Bright RSC Future After 'Lean' Times" (News, 25 Jul 2003)
  • "Troubled RSC Names Boyd as Successor to Noble" (News, 25 Jul 2003)
  • "Noble's RSC Departure Prompts Stratford Rethink" (News, 29 Apr 2003)
  • "Adrian Noble Steps Down as RSC Artistic Director" (News, 25 Jul 2003)
  • "Situation Vacant: Departing Directors, Fresh Recruits" (Features, 10 Dec 2001)


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