Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), is finally reaping the rewards for turning a seemingly troubled theatre on its head. Last week, Boyd returned to his undergraduate days as an English Literature student at the University of Edinburgh to receive an honorary degree for his contributions to theatre.
“It’s really moving. There are all sorts of powerful emotions” he nostalgically gusts about his return to the University. He reminisces about his undergraduate days, remembering tutorials with one particularly inspirational tutor: “Roger Savage is probably the main reason why I wanted to come and get this degree. He was the teacher who did that thing of helping me to help me find the vocabulary and the grammar to make up the story of my life. He was that good a teacher.”
Boyd feels indebted to the University for providing him with an understanding of literature and drama that paved the way for his successful career in theatre. Boyd merits the extent to which his studies “informed my understanding and the critical appreciation of literature throughout the ages. It was fantastic.” Boyd was also involved with the student theatre company playing the Evil Angel in a production of Faustus and more poignantly, for his career direction, Hamlet. He mentions how his studies were integral to his dramatic performances and how he put the “theorising with Roger” into practice on stage.
Theatre, for Boyd, was always his passion. But it was not until his university years that it really took off. “University gave me the resources, time, and people that I had not had before. There were some really talented people. Some of them wasted on astrophysics now,” he adds jestingly. It also gave him a break into the real world of theatre. “I wrote and directed a piece called God, Herbert, Donne and the Devil, which was a review skit. I was really lucky because it was entered for the National Student Drama Festival, which that year was on at the Royal Court. That was quite a break for me because a few people involved in London theatre saw it and enjoyed it. They were then able to be referees for me later on.”
I ask him whether there were any cringe-worthy moments as an amateur. He pauses, stuck for examples. He then recalls a time when he and then-girlfriend whom he later married, Marcella Evaristi, performed a dramatisation of Ted Hughes’ Crow. He described it as a “panic, we just did not know what we were doing moments before the show. It was very high risk.” They managed to pull it off though. Still surprised at managing to pull off the performance, Boyd gushes, “Actually it was really interesting and rather good. We really thought we were for the high jump.”
Boyd has experienced some high points in his career too. Undoubtedly, the best experience was “the last night of the Histories Cycles at the Roundhouse in London, which was the end of a three year journey for a group of actors. There was that feeling that the experiment in an ensemble had really worked.” Not only was it a turning point for the RSC, which saw them put their burdened past to bed, but it also had a personal significance for Boyd. “I remember when I had only just left Edinburgh University and went to see Richard Durer’s Richard III at the Roundhouse. It had been one of those seminal “my God this is amazing I want to do something like that one day” moments and he was there watching my Richard III and grinning all over. That was fantastic!”
I ask Boyd whether he ever had any doubts about taking over from Adrian Noble back in 2003 when the RSC was weighed down with a deficit of £2.8 million, but he could not doubt his enthusiasm and innovative ideas for the company. “I was always pretty confident that I was pushing in the right direction,” Boyd explains, “but I certainly had tremendous doubts as to whether it would come off. There were doubts as to whether I was off my chump taking on that responsibility.” Yet Boyd does not take the company’s current position for granted, humbly stating that: “Even though we are generally perceived to be in a strong place right now, we’re producing strong work and know what we are doing. There are still lots of problems, for instance we still don’t have a permanent London home for one thing. I think running something as big as, what is probably the largest theatre company in the world, is always going to be an exercise in controlled failure.”
But what about the uncontrolled external elements? The recession must have hit theatre hard. This is something that Boyd easily admits to. “Yes. In our Newcastle season this year, you could feel price resistance, and just talking to the people running the theatres there. We haven’t been hit at the box office, touchwood, but where we have been hit is in our redevelopment programme. In terms of capital fundraising it is much harder. We’ll do it. We might have been almost there by now, but we have a bit further to go and that is pure recession.”
Despite the hard times, Boyd is still keeping to his manifesto to reengage modern society with Shakespeare. “In the end it is about the relationship between the stage and the audience,” Boyd explains, “We are starting up a fresher, more interesting dialogue from the stage, partly architecturally by performing on a deep thrust stage. The audience are aware of themselves; they look across the theatre and see an actor on stage and the lady in the green coat at the other side. They are aware of it as a communal conspiracy and see something shared in real time, in real space, together. That is becoming an ever more important quality about the art form now, in an age of digital loneliness and celebrity worship.”
Apart from offering his audience entertainment that films and TV cannot, the RSC are taking the art form to schools and making Shakespeare more fun for children. “We are changing the teaching culture,” Boyd bubbles over with excitement. “The desks are being pushed to the side of the room and kids who had previous been branded, both by themselves and their teachers, as ‘not particularly gifted’ are getting confidently up on their feet. They’re taking proud ownership of this supposedly high culture, and a) really enjoying it and b) gaining academic confidence which is then spreading into their other subjects as well.” Boyd is obviously very proud of the RSC’s engagement with schools. What does he think about updating the language to make Shakespeare more accessible? He answers to my surprise: “I think updating the language can be great, certainly as a gateway to the original Shakespeare. If you look at people in other countries, they are working and are enjoying their engagement with updated translations. Part of me is very jealous of directors from abroad because the gap between the Renaissance and now isn’t so massive and dramatic as it is in the English language theatre, where you’ve got this thing ‘oh you can’t possibly change the language it’s Shakespeare.’ I am in favour of updating the language and I think that when we do the World Shakespeare Festival for the 2012 Olympics we will be commissioning some English translations. It will be very controversial.”
Shakespeare has been one of Britain’s most loved authors for nearly 400 years now. What, in Boyd’s opinion, makes Shakespeare such an important literary figure? “Because he’s got the mastery of rhythm and pitch of a Beethoven. He has the wit and humour of recognition as Matt Groening. He has the horrible, clear-eyed metaphysic of a Samuel Beckett. Because he has the huge, human heart and muscular passion of someone like Ted Hughes. Because he’s got the brutal truth telling and humanity of a Picasso and the sophistication of human relationships of a Philip Roth. All in one. He is still vivid, because he is unresolved. He was unresolved when he wrote it. He had to leave it unresolved. If he resolved his writing, his plays would have not been allowed on stage. So he had to encase his work in metaphor.”
With all of these antithetical identities, can we pin down Shakespeare’s own ideas and philosophies? Boyd thinks not. “But if I had to identify one item of Shakespeare’s DNA that is characteristic of him it would be antithesis. It would be the opposition of one idea against another and letting whatever it is hover in between those two ideas.”
Despite our inability to determine the intentions of our nation’s great writer, we still cannot get enough of contemplating and debating his ideas about humanity and his timeless approach to theatre. Boyd believes that it is Shakespeare’s ambiguity that “is what keeps him alive today.”