Making Shakespeare Brand-new: A Tribute to Michael Bogdanov (15 December 1938 – 16 April 2017)
by Paul Edmondson
I first met Michael Bogdanov in 2008, when he came to take part in a study day on Hamlet at the Shakespeare Centre. He had directed the play five times in a theatrical career that spanned well over half a century. We talked about his archive and he said to me that he would love to think of his papers being in Stratford. They were deposited in our archive four years later in 2011, and it remains a source of pleasure and pride for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to look after them. We made him an Honorary Fellow at the half-annual meeting of the Trustees in 2011, and he became a good friend to us, continuing to contribute to his papers, and taking an interest in our work. In January 2016 he took part as a special-guest in a question and answer session at our Winter School. All of the quotations from Michael in this blog are taken from that discussion which itself was recorded for his archive.
He first became inspired by theatre at the age of four, at a pantomime where he fell in love with the chorus. He acted in a few Shakespeare plays at school, including Henry IV Part One, but was put off Shakespeare through having to study Hamlet’s soliloquy beginning ‘How all occasions do inform against me’ for a whole term (!) Luckily, he went on a school trip to see Richard Burton as Coriolanus at the Old Vic (‘one-and-six for a seat in the gods’). Burton shared a similar Welsh background, and Michael was mesmerised. He became a Shakespeare convert and returned with a friend to see Burton and John Neville alternate the roles of Othello and Iago: ‘they made Shakespeare sound like modern language. It made sense.’ He continued acting while he was a student at Trinity College, Dublin (‘I was always a very bad actor. I could never get inside the character. I was always on the outside looking in’), and it was there that he started directing. His first production won the university’s drama festival. In addition, he thoroughly engaged with popular culture and politics through the co-writing of dozens of sketches and songs for the university’s reviews.
His first single-handed Shakespeare production as a director was in San Paolo, Brazil: Los dos hidalgos de Verona (The Two Gentlemen of Verona): ‘it was a nightmare’. He slept on the floor in an incomplete house (the windows hadn’t been filled in), and he wasn’t paid. But, as an experience, it resonated with an earthy sense of community. Theatre really mattered to the people of San Paolo.
He was thirty when he arrived to work for the RSC, their youngest assistant director thus far. He assisted with Trevor Nunn’s Hamlet and Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Michael regarded Brook as ‘the great showman of the twentieth century, a guru’. He also admired the inclusivity of Peter Hall as a director. Hall always asked for Michael’s opinion and made him feel as though he was making a genuine contribution.
His father was a Ukrainian Russian Marxist and his mother was Welsh, steeped in the Labour tradition of the valleys, so politics were an important fact of life for him and informed his approach to theatre. He also always insisted on modern dress productions. If Shakespeare matters, then productions of the plays should reflect our own times back to us. For this reason, Michael never sat comfortably in Stratford: ‘there was a great paucity of political thinking at the heart of the productions’. His Shakespeare was much more insurrectionist and radical. Nevertheless, he was wooed back to the RSC a decade later for a ground-breaking The Taming of the Shrew (1978), and a thoroughly modern Romeo and Juliet (1986). He returned again for The Venetian Twins (1993) and the suitably disturbing Faust Parts One and Two (1995).
He was one of only a handful of directors of our own times properly to engage with academic thinking and writing. He was especially struck by Stephen Greenblatt’s essay ‘Invisible Bullets’ which encouraged Michael, as a director, to explore areas of the plays that are more radical than might first be supposed, and which re-pay investigation: ‘they unlock the play to you; they can punch you in the face.’ His books Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut (volume one, 2003 and volume two, 2005) are packed the with kinds of political insights that make the plays seem newly-minted. Key to his approach to Shakespeare was to imagine that ‘the play has just arrived on your desk’ and to ‘look at that story as a completely new idea, and see what it says to you, where it goes wrong, where things don’t fit […] like many new plays.’ The endings of the comedies, for instance, ‘are not comic at all’, but rather ‘open up another dozen stories’. What’s going to happen to Olivia and Sebastian in Twelfth Night, or What You Will? What’s marriage going to be like for Rosalind and Orlando in As You Like It?
From 1986, he co-founded (and co-ran with Michael Pennington) the English Shakespeare Company (the ESC). It was the height of the Thatcher years and there was a hunger for non-mainstream, politically edged Shakespeare. He would trim the plays in order to shorten them, but tried never cut them in ways that altered the story (‘if you cut Fortinbras [from Hamlet], you cut the balls off Claudius’). But he would significantly adapt the plays, if he felt this was necessary. For the ESC’s cycle of history plays, for example, he wrote four hundred new lines which became affectionately known as ‘Bogspeare’.
He liked to say that there were some plays he could not leave alone (as well as the five Hamlets, there were five Romeo and Juliets, and six Macbeths). He had been preparing to direct his first Othello a year or so before the session at Winter School, but it had all fallen through.
His archive at the Shakespeare Centre covers his career from 1965 until 2010, and includes all of his annotated scripts, reviews, production notes, prompt-books, programmes, correspondence, talks to his companies, and manuscripts. It also includes the scripts for his films, television documentaries, and materials for his theatre in education work.
He was an important, politically engaged director of Shakespeare, who always set out to make the plays seem brand-new. For Michael, as for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it was important for theatrical productions to show ‘the very age and body of the time his form and pressure’.
Sir Stanley Wells, echoes the feelings of many of Michael’s admirers:
‘A Michael Bogdanov production of a Shakespeare play was never dull. Whether The Taming of the Shrew opened with an apparently drunk Petruccio assaulting an usherette and tearing down the scenery, or Romeo and Juliet ended with a rewritten version of the Prologue, or a scene in Henry V displayed a banner saying ‘Fuck the French’, you could be sure that what you went to see would be thoroughly re-imagined and brilliantly re-conceived in terms of our own society. He could be iconoclastic, he could shock, he could adapt and rewrite, but for him Shakespeare was always our contemporary, both magically poetical and intellectually engaging. He loved Shakespeare too much to turn him into a museum piece.’
he view expressed in this article are the author’s own.