To begin at the beginning
My real name is Bogdin. It’s a nice short little Ukrainian name and once had the distinction of being the only Bogdin in the phone book in the whole of Great Britain. I spent 10 hours one day in the British Museum Library when I was 12, checking.
Bogdin. B-O-G-D-I-N. Simple you would think to pronounce and write. Nog a bin of id. Bigdin, Bodgin, Badgin, Bigbin, Bogpan, Dogbin, Dodgin, Bogpen, Biggie, Boggie, Baggie – whatever variant you come up with, I’ve had it. The crunch came when I received a cheque from the Irish Times for an article I had written for 1s 11d (you can tell how long ago that was) made out to M. Bogie. I thought – right, that’s it – and I changed my name to the professional one of Bogdanov, the surname of a Polish cousin 10 times removed. If you want something to fuck up, try that. At least it would make people concentrate.
Read Michael Bogdanov on a life with Shakespeare here.
For a time, it all worked wondrously. Apart from the ‘V’ turning into a ‘U’ an ‘R’ or an ‘FF’, it had the effect of focusing the collective dyslexia perfectly. Until computers got hold of it. Computer error, Sir. There’s nothing wrong with my tipping.
Suddenly the whole name game collapsed around my ears in one ego. I was giving a lecture at the University of Florida, Talahassee, and the Professor of the Drama Faculty introduced me. (Imagine a deep Southern drawl). “I’d now like y’all to welcome he-yar one of the world’s great theatre directors. Put your hands together and welcome all the way from London, England – Mr Michael Dogbananas!” I laughed. “Would that it were so” I said, “but my name is Bogdanov”. Face aghast! “Gaard, I’m really, really sorry! Look, Mr Darnoff, may I call you Bob?” Q.E.D.
That and Bogdoornob. A teacher at Howells School, Llandaff, where I had been giving a talk. To the 8 year olds. – “Thank Mr Bogdoornob nicely”. Chorus of 8 year olds – “Thank you Mr Bogdoornob”.
If you must choose a name other than your own to operate under professionally, make sure to choose one that cannot be confused with anyone else working in an associated field. I suspect that Bogdin, had I been able to live patiently with the corruption,would not have wrought confusion. As it was, through the 70s, when I was working at the Newcastle Playhouse, phone calls mixed me up with the then Newcastle and England footballer – hushed voice on the end of the line, mishearing – “Mum, it’s Malcolm MacDonald!” MacDonald is still common. (‘Aye, Madam,‘tis common’ – Hamlet).
But the worst is having that little known film director Peter Bogdanovich hanging around my neck. Even good friends sometimes inadvertently address me as my namesake. Christopher Morahan, an Associate with me at the Royal National Theatre, congratulating me on my SWET ( Society of West End Theatres) Director of the Year Award – “Well done, Peter”. Tom Kempinski, playwright, pens a letter – ‘Dear Peter, this is an offer of employment…’ Young actor hopefuls write for jobs – Dear Mr Bogdanovich, Dear Peter Bogdanov. So it didn’t surprise me, as a result of an essay that I wrote for the New Statesman, castigating critics for their ignorance and inaccuracy, that Peter Popham of The Independent should retaliate with a blistering attack on the wrong man.
I was once standing in the foyer of the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester, a Young People’s and Community theatre, seating 250 people of which I was the Artistic Director. It was Christmas 1977. The first night had just taken place of my version of Dracula, an adult participation fun show. The audience post-show Dracula feast was in full swing on stage – Garlic Sausage, Gingerbread crosses, Bulls Blood wine etc. A man came up to me, collar and tie.
“Jolly good show”.
“However there is one thing I’ve been meaning to say to you for some time. I think you got the end of The Last Picture Show wrong. You know the shot where….” I interposed.
“Wait a minute, don’t you mean Peter Bogdanovich?”
“Yes, that’s you isn’t it?”
I laughed. “Somehow, I don’t think that Peter Bogdanovich would be standing in the foyer of the Phoenix Theatre Leicester, having directed Dracula for Christmas. However, if you were to try Michael Bogdanov on Sunset Boulevard (a fair swap I thought) he might be able to help you”.
I take comfort from the fact that Peter B. suffers a certain amount of irritation when people at the Oscar ceremonies address him as Mike, or belt up to him in Bel-Air panting “Michael, I’ve been looking for you everywhere”. It did happen once. A columnist and writer in L.A., a close friend from Trinity College, Dublin, (and an even closer friend of the stars….) received a call from both Pete and Mike on the same day. Confusing the numbers on her message sheet, she rang Peter Bogdanovich and when a sleepy voice answered said “Michael, this is Bridget”. One back.
This identity crisis finally reached its apotheosis at the time of the tit for tat (awful expression) expulsion of the 12 Russian diplomats in 1987. For some time I had been receiving letters, forwarded from BBC Radio 4, addressed to Michael Bogdanov.
They began “I enjoyed your lecture last night on the Kurdistan economy….” and “I found your dissertation on the development of the Russian tractor fascinating…” I thought that someone was playing a practical joke on me and sent them back ‘Not Known At This Address”.
One day I received a thick package with a mass of diagrams and plans. Not another bloody tractor! And I threw it in the fire. Then came the expulsions. I turned over the back page of The Guardian and there was a picture of a man on the steps of a plane – the Russian diplomat, Michael Bogdanov, who had been here for a year to give a series of lectures for Radio 4 on the Soviet economy. Being expelled.
“At one point” he said “I became confused with the theatre director of the same name. He even received my mail including a series of plans for a secret nuclear site in the Highlands of Scotland”.
The phone rang all next day, asking me what I had done to get thrown out. There are many things that might qualify but bullshitting about Russian tractors is not one of them. Theatre possibly.
Get yourself a good name.
So what is a director? Part teacher, psychologist, psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, nursemaid, confidant, therapist, elocutionist, gymnast, choreographer, clown, raconteur, poet, painter, architect, writer, editor, child, adult, politician, revolutionary, mediator, trouble-shooter, terrorist. A train driver, a brake man. Street-fighting man, tome-toting pedant. An upholder of tradition, an iconoclastic destroyer. The purveyor of truth, the harbinger of lies. A believer in the power of theatre in whatever form, and wherever it is performed, to change the world.
And many more things.
I confess at some point to having been all of these, on occasions the whole lot in the course of a single day. At such times I believe we earn our money. It’s a bastard of a profession.
I am often asked how I would describe myself as a director and I generally evade the question, leaving it to others to provide a variety of (usually disparaging) epithets. I have been called variously – an iconoclast, third-rate, a genius. I should have been – strangled at birth, run out of town, never let near a stage; that radical organ ‘The Daily Telegraph’ has called me ‘a national treasure’. I have been described as – insouciant, irreverent, eccentric; authentic, accomplished, inept; pioneering, Marxist, provocative; conservative, original, incompetent, masterly; (un)disciplined, brash, astonishing; unique, unsubtle, surprising, predictable, outrageous, life-enhancing, arrogant, exciting, boorish, a buffoon, a joy; and – on the occasion of receiving an Honorary Fellowship from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama – ‘the most idiosyncratic director at work today’. On my gravestone I would like the word – ‘Tried’, except when I first dyslexically typed it, up came ‘Tired’.
However, if pushed to parade my ego, I could see myself as something like Augusto Boal out of Ken Campbell/Meyerhold and Littlewood, with a touch of the Compton sweep, the Baylis mission and Nye Bevan’s passion thrown in. There’s also something of Eric and Ernie out of Tati there too, with a side-step like Barry John. (You can tell my age by the cultural references). I have had a number of influences – Sartre, Camus, Kerouac when young, Nietsche, Foucault, Marx when older. No unreconstructed socialist me – just a socialist.
In the theatre, The Living Theatre were a revelation, Brook a confirmation, Jan Kott a consummation, English critics an abomination. I have never consciously tried to imitate or steal anybody’s work unless there was an idea that I thought humbly I could develop better in some way. Ideas are a thousand a penny. Nobody has copyright on ideas (least of all directors) and if somebody takes something of mine I wish them well. It only hurts when they use it badly.
I have had a number of heroes and mentors over the years, some more unlikely than others. From left to right; H B Craig, an Irishman who only lasted two terms at my school, the Lower School of John Lyon, Harrow, whose IVth form English lessons consisted solely of letting groups of us compete against each other with improvised playlets. That’s why he only lasted two terms. My group was the Boganshosles, a combination of syllables culled from three members – John Walsh, Philip Mansley and myself.
R B D French, grandson of Percy French, Ireland’s great tunesmith (“Are you right there, Michael, are you right?”) my tutor and the Chairman of Players, the theatre group at Trinity College Dublin, who handed over the writing of the Annual Summer revue after 30 years in the saddle, to myself and Terry Brady. An indelible memory: his vast, ice cold, crumbling Georgian pile of decay and splendour in the Wicklow mountains in the snow. His 95-year old Mother in bed with gloves, black hat and a bottle of Guinness. Six sausages for tea. He ate three, in his overcoat. I two. He offered me the last one. As I reached for it, it was nimbly speared and porked whole with ne’er an upward glance from a book propped up on a bottle of stout. Timing.
Tom McGrath, Irish/Canadian, lugubrious Head of Light Entertainment at Radio Telefis Eireann, Dublin, where as Producer/Director I worked on over 125 programmes in the space of two years. Religion and Gaelic football, Outside Broadcast dramas up mountains in the West of Ireland, travelling news documentaries. Tom hired me straight from a BBC Producers’ Course: two days later I was in the box directing an hour long weekly live Show Band show, ‘One Night Stand’. A furnace of a baptism. Tom would say of a tricky number “Kick it, head – if it won’t sing it won’t work”. I knew what he meant even if nobody else did.
Peter Stevens, administrator of the Nottingham Playhouse with John Neville, opener of new theatres extraordinaire – Newcastle, the Leicester Haymarket, and the (Royal) National Theatre. He took me with him to all of them – Artistic Directors willing. He said to me, fingers stabbing out, eyes bulging, during a particularly bolshie interchange in the foyer of the Newcastle Playhouse “You’re good – but you’re trouble”. (I had encouraged Tony Vogel as Caliban in the Tempest, totally naked, covered in mud, to go into the foyer in the interval and have a pint. “Hi day – freedom”, I quoted from the play, trying to explain).
Peter Hall, not for standing by, in front and behind, during the Romans in Britain affair, but for teaching me a lesson; in theatre – never say never. “But you said he’s a terrible actor” I exploded over Michael Pennington, who a year previously had been denied me as Astrov in Uncle Vanya and who Peter was now casting in lead roles in Shakespeare’s late plays. Eyes widening, cigar out of mouth, blandly – “I’ve changed my mind”. He really should have played Claudius.
Victor Glynn, fast talking Mr Fixit, erstwhile head of Golden Square Pictures and Portman Films, but in my days at the Young Vic, Press Officer. The first Board member of the English Shakespeare Company and still there fourteen years later at the finish. Got ‘Hiawatha’, my series ‘Shakespeare Lives’ and 24 hours of the ESC’s ‘The Wars of the Roses’ onto the screen.
Bill Wallis, now alas no longer with us, rotund actor, and Chris Dyer, bearded designer (that is not all I have to say about them), alongside whom at differing periods, I developed, in theory and in practice, my ideas on Shakespeare. Some would say they should have been run out of town.
Peter Zadek, for giving me two of the greatest experiences I have ever had in the theatre – Ghetto and Lulu – thus inspiring me to go and work in Germany. If that’s what you can do there, I thought, I want in.
Dai Smith and Phil George, former Head of English Language Programming and Head of Arts, Music and Features at BBC Wales for enabling my film making and providing an ongoing scintillating intellectual challenge around politics ,art, rugby and wine. What’s left ?
And finally my partner, actor Michael Pennington, with whom I co-founded the English Shakespeare Company, who for ten years fought the system alongside me at the ESC, travelled 50,000 miles, playing exotically split weeks in Hull/ Paris and Blackpool/Karachi and who only once lost his temper – not with the Arts Council, surprisingly, but over the vexed question at the Chicago World Theatre Festival of the unprovided breakfast sausage post 9.00am, without which, it would seem, the Company could not perform. Or get out of bed in time.
Two planks and a passion.
The first plank the stage, the second the ideology on which to build the passion. The passion is to spread that ideology. All art is political. It is protest. At its highest point it is a powerful instrument of social change. The position of theatre within society, makes it ideally placed to aid that change and we, the artists, the theatre practitioners, have a duty to fulfil our elected role as purveyors and vendors of truth as we see it. This can change daily and the theatre responds accordingly, altering its perspective. Why not television and film? I want the live contact of an audience. I want to feel an instant response to what I say. I want an audience to stand up and be counted. To shout Yes, to shout No, to cheer, to boo, to laugh, to cry, to walk out, to fight, to argue – anything to indicate that what has happened during a performance has moved that audience to feel something and motivated them to do something about that feeling. Arseholes to Aristotle. Boo to Brecht. I want passion and engagement, not catharsis and Verfremdung (Alienation).
Two people meet. One tells a story. Then that same person tells the story again and again and again, each time varying the delivery and each time receiving a different response. One day s/he tells it to one person, the next day to a thousand. There are some people to whom it is told who think up suggestions about how it can be changed. Maybe four or five people can tell it better. Or a thousand. The story changes. Each person, each generation, each century adapts it to particular circumstances. Some use costumes to illustrate it, others use settings. Some illustrate it literally, others use fantasy and imagination. Some use images, some use technology. The core of the story has remained the same but around it peoples and cultures have woven a fabric of artifice and artistry, colour and magic, movement and words, light and sound. And it has remained an uniquely live experience, happening only at one moment in time, conferring on the group of people telling and the group listening a very special status. They, and only they at that moment and in that place, are participating, whether in a basement in Brixton, a quarry in Avignon, a dustbowl in Africa or a stadium in Sydney. Or, even in that strange place of reverential worship with the misnomer “theatre”. They are the privileged ones sharing that communal experience. That’s theatre.
And yet it is something much, much more. If theatre were merely the expression of fantasy it would only paint abstract pictures with words; but words and sounds combine to communicate a story. The king is dead – the child is sleeping – the boy is hungry. As we become more sophisticated, so we need to express feelings about ourselves, about society, the world. Words by extension become debate and theatre becomes a debating platform, the natural outlet for all the hopes, wishes, anger, despairs of a community. It becomes that instrument of social change. There are some still telling the original story. There are others now who have turned the story into a moral fable. Some others still want a change of leader and are using the story as an illustration. Theatre is being put to the service of the community. Some stay with Aristotle’s version of the story in this debate about leadership, purging their emotions through guilt and through catharsis. Others follow Brecht and calmly debate the possibility of change. Another group over in the corner has collectively decided that the story needs a real ending and have gone out into the streets to gather support for a deposition. There’s another group who have set the whole thing to music, as the way to interest people in the subject. There is an excitement in the air. The Story has released limitless possibilities of form and action. The whole population is being mobilised to tell the Story their way, throw out the politicians, stop the madness, change the world.
But wait a minute. There’s a group who don’t want change and they make the laws and control the capital. They don’t believe in this collective rubbish. People are not intelligent enough to use theatre in this way. Give them picture newspapers to read, reality shows in which to participate, game-shows to play. Leave the question of what theatre should do and be about to those that know. This group clamps down on this radical form of theatre, channelling their vision into a narrow, sophisticated, literary form of words, attempting to suffocate the wild anarchic child at birth. But it’s tough, this child. It will survive when they are long gone.
However, theatre in this new millennium has a problem. In many quarters it is perceived as, and indeed is, old-fashioned. That is both its strength and its weakness. While the 21st century internet communications highway powers along its technological, social media betwittered and facebooked path into a digitalised sunset, theatre remains two wanks and a soggy tissue. It cannot go forward, it cannot go back. It has nowhere to go, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. All roads return to the same point. Theatre was, is, continues to be, a ceremonial circle, lassoing language – the last custodian and the embodiment of an oral tradition now threatened by extinction from soft-ware, hard-ware, any old where. Not that there aren’t attempts to evolve, adapt, even rival its computerised confederates. Where once we whistled the set, now we sing the hydraulics.
And the problem is also social. Theatre often hides in dark corners of old buildings or cosies up in new. It has willingly crawled up an intellectual, middle-class fox-hole pursued by marketing hounds, refusing to come out even when attacked by ferocious terriers snarling in factories, railway arches, warehouses, disused pits. And even then the audience is often finite, educated, prescribed. Professional theatre teeters on the brink of its own grave, aided and abetted by an in-built philistinism. Can it be changed? Is it too late? Will it ever be a popular art form of the people? Was it ever? Does it need to be? I used to think theatre was the natural popular medium of expression, that through theatre the majority of the population would come to understand the nature of their lot. You know something? I still do.
For a spell in 1958 I was sports master, and also an occasional teacher of English, Mathematics (!) and History, at the École Anglaise de Paris, situated about 30 miles west of Paris at Andrésy. It was a school for the sons and daughters of SHAPE personnel (the Allied Forces) mostly American, but there was a total of 17 nationalities of varying ages and abilities.
Not a lot of sport (of the athletic kind) was done – I did manage to achieve a couple of hand-springs and a football team that lost to a local school 25-19, me scoring 18 of our goals. My days were spent avoiding the Spanish teacher (male) and a series of chunky American girls, bursting out of shorts and blouses. It was run by the Marquis de Kuègelain – a French resistance hero and my interview had been conducted by somebody called “his son” who looked like a cross between Douglas Fairbanks Jnr. And Brad Pitt – impeccably mantled in a royal blue blazer, cravat and white shirt, collar turned up – a ringer for Christian 50 Shades of Grey. He turned to me, suave 26 facing callow 19 and started working his mouth and nose as if desperately trying to withhold a sneeze. Then, in a voice reminiscent of Oxford marmalade being strained through Terry Thomas, he said, mouth still working nostrils flaring, “Mm – you’ll hev to – mm – ex-CUSE may – mm – mm – Ay’ve -mm – got – a mouthful of toothpaste”.
It was a phrase I was to have occasion to use in the future when confronted by an inarticulate actor….
To raise money to get to Paris I sold my precious collection of British stamps, gathered over a period of ten years from the time I was nine. A couple of Penny Blacks, a load of Penny Reds and Twopenny Blues as well as a number of other valuable issues. This shark of a dealer gave me five pounds. It should have been about fifty but I was young, gullible and stupid. (So what has changed, apart from now being old?)
I also sold about 100 of my father’s books, including a load of his early Penguins. I don’t know why my father let me do it – he prized books enormously, handled them with the utmost reverence. It’s a mystery and I prize books now so highly, including his battered . yellow, nicotine stained from my mother’s smoking, collection. I can’t even get rid of torn, thumbed old copies of Penny Hank Jansens rented out at threepence a go to classmates. I wouldn’t let my children do it. After I’ve gone OK.
I had booked a room in the Ecole Des Mines in the Rue St.Jaques, a hostel for engineering students in the heart of the left bank, right by the Jardins de Luxembourg. The first evening I went down to the café below and was adopted by a group of engineers who were staying over in the hostel during the holiday period. They introduced me to a game called Cardinal Puff, which involved drinking copious amounts of red wine while trying to repeat a series of commands that Cardinal Puff uttered before taking a swig. The consequences were inevitable. I never looked back, spoke only French for six months and the only English friend I made was Maurice Frankel, now head of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, on a year’s sabbatical from St. Andrews University..
I existed by playing my guitar around the cafes of the left bank – the Dome, the Selecte and the Coupole in Montparnasse, the corner by Odeon Metro on the Boulevard St.Germain, and Satre’s Café Flore and Les Deux Magots. I was a three chord merchant, hopeless really, but I could wiggle my hips and thrust my pelvis in the appropriate manner and the streets resounded to the sound of Blue Suede Shoes, Maybe Baby and Twenty Flight Rock on a tinny old guitar. Elvis, Eddie Cochrane and Buddy Holly don’t know what a debt I owe them. It was a novelty in those days, and the patrons generous, but with my severely limited repertoire I regularly attracted a modicum of opprobrium when I would come round the same three cafes an hour or so later with the same three songs.
But in this way I survived when the school packed up for the summer and I moved out of Les Mines. The diet was saucisses frites at La Petite Source on the Boulevard St.Germain and the treat was coeur brise aux carottes in the Place du Pantheon, 90 centimes, or for a treat Poulet au Riz a l’Indienne, 1 Fr. 30 in the Rue des Ecoles, serenaded by violin-playing Russian exile waiters. I must have slept on a floor in every street on the left bank, and a few nights in doorways as well.
I ate, drank, breathed and slept existentialism.
I hunted with Bernard and Marcel, two unemployed vagabonds, in the Jardins de Luxembourg. I discovered folk music in the underground cellar Le Batam in the Rue Cujas in the form of Alex Campbell, a Scottish philanderer. I listened to jazz in Storyville and danced to Maxime Saury, both in the famed Rue De La Huchette, in the days before the street became pedestrianised for tourists seeking the authentic experience of a Turkish Kebab Shop, Algerian trinket rip-off merchants and real live students employed to dress up as existentialists.
Question. What does an existentialist look like?
I discovered the bookshop Shakespeare and Co. and ate soup in the back room in the company of Hemingway.
Le Fureur de Vivre. I was in love with life and love and thought I would never go back. Or go and live in Scandinavia. Ho, hum. TCD beckoned.
Cold October morning. That strange smell in the air – a combination of Liffy effluent at low tide, human and animal excrement. Lugging a brown suitcase along the cobble stones, threading between the cattle and the bicycles. A first night of madness passed on that Irish phenomenon, the Liverpool package boat. Travelling steerage, a cabin awash with Guinness, snoring bog-men and wild singing, cows for companions. Fights.
I was in Dublin. A foreign land. In 1958. At that time Trinity was still a ‘gentleman’s’ university, a protestant oasis in the midst of a catholic cauldron. This beautiful college, catching at your heart and throat, at the heart of a city at the heart of a country. A cultural cocoon, a haven in the midst of poverty and literature, alcohol and animation. No girls allowed in college rooms after 6 pm, unless smuggled illegally in the boot of a car. Along with Butch from Birmingham I wore Teddy Boy drain-pipes a curiosity among the tweeds and cavalry twill of Oxbridge rejects.
A school colleague had written for application forms. A reply said just turn up on October 10th with £100.
A real place of learning. I wrote the same letter and received the same reply. Chance. It turned out to be the best thing I have ever done. I stayed 11 years.
Memories. An Irish girl. Long black hair and blue eyes. Sitting demurely at the table in the Old Stand in Wicklow Street. Head scarf. Coat buttoned to the neck, hand bag on the knees and drinking 8 pints of Guinness without batting an eyelid. I drank five and fell over. I had met my first wife.
The Bailey. The phone ringing on the wall. Me answering.
“Is Mary Behan there?”
“Tell her Brendan’s gone.”
Bachelor parties in the Rubrics – college rooms; iron lungs of stout, and bicycles up the trees. After all night poker sessions walk to the Quays for an early morning pint. Prompt at six, lights on, doors open, and there they are, the same familiar row of backs, hunched over black pints. “You see lads, you can always get in round the side door. Unofficial like.”
The cold. The dirt. The beggars, tinkers. The smoke, the Guinness. The dance halls. Ten menless women to every legless man. The last waltz, a drunken rush of satisfaction. R.B.D. Ffrench, grandson of Percy Ffrench, Ireland’s great tunesmith, (“Are you right there, Michael, Are you right?”) My tutor. And fortuitously the champion of Players, the Theatre group. ‘Try and get to a few more lectures…’
My brief-case, containing nothing but a pound of potatoes, a cauliflower and two Whiting, bought in Moore Street for fourpence. Spilling and rolling down Grafton Street. Poker sessions with Mike Leahy, a politically incorrect philosophy student. His politically incorrect philosophy? Always go for the plainest girl in the room. A constant stream up and down his stairs – those same Ginger Man O’Keefe stairs at Number 3.
No. 3, the home of Players Theatre. My doom. Four years of misspent youth. Seating only 50, and a stage bigger than the auditorium – writing, acting, directing. We took our revue, Would Anyone Who Saw the Accident’, written by myself and Terry Brady, to The Theatre Royal, Stratford East. ‘Yes I saw it’, wrote Milton Schulman, critic of the Evening Standard, ‘the whole ghastly mess. And I’m a willing witness for the prosecution’.
My first brush with the London critics. I have lived to have many more.
There were 20 of us, a small but improbably talented bunch. In it for the fun and world beaters.
Terry Brady actor extraordinaire and my co-writer, one of the funniest performers I have ever encountered; Ralph Bates, tragically died early, star of Poldark, and Hammer hero; Roger Cheveley, later Head of Design Yorkshire TV; John Gardner, Administrator of the Liverpool Everyman and the Leicester Haymarket; Roger Ordish, The Jimmy Saville Spherical Order of Merit for Service Beyond the Call of Duty for 25 years Producer of Jim ‘ll Fix it (I am not sure how he feels now….); Bruce Myers, for 45 years – and still – Peter Brook’s leading actor; John Castle, left to star in The Lion in Winter opposite Peter O’Toole; Shane Bryant, another Hammer hero; Martin Lewis, BBC announcer and News at Ten; and…and…and…and I haven’t even got to Jo van Gysegham, Max Stafford Clark, Gillian Hannah, Dinah Stabb…
We were prolific and profligate, whiling away our years and degrees in that dark corner of Front Square, ranting and raving ancient and modern, red-hot lovers of rotting curtains and musty doublets, staggering into the dawn of Botany Bay for an improbable bout of hang-over tennis. All spread far and wide now in the world of theatre, films and TV.
I lived in Oscar Wilde’s rooms, briefly in Bram Stoker’s. But then with only 200 rooms and 400 years of history you were bound to be preceded by someone famous. Goldsmith, Burke, Sheridan, Synge, Berkley, Swift. I studied French under O’Sheehy Skeffington, son of a famous martyr, who studied under Beckett, who told a story of Rimbaud discovering you could pull your eye out on a stalk – did so, waggling it around to get a strange distorted view of the world.
My waggling eye was Trinity and Dublin, the greatest untraining for life. I cried at the demise of Number 3. when they transferred it to an anonymous ill conceived space in the new Samuel Beckett Centre. An irreplaceable chunk of Trinity’s – and my – life sacrificed on the altar of expediency. It should have a blue plaque slapped on it.
In that post-Ginger-Man period of ’58 till ’68 the world was full of TCD misfits wandering the globe not knowing what to do. So much yearning for Ireland that many returned or just simply stayed. I nearly did.
By chance (because he had asked me) I directed a one-act play in my penultimate year at TCD, written by Tony Aspler (later head of Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Radio ) entitled “Echo of a Sigh. It won the Irish Universities Drama Festival in Galway that year. I thought “This is easy!” And directed Huis Clos by J P Sartre. It was terrible, notable only for me having passed over Bruce Myers and John Castle for the 2 male roles, both of whom left Trinity shortly after and went to RADA. Not as a result. But I was hooked.
I was lucky. I learnt the basics in the hard school of weekly rep, and explored area and space, lighting and staging, entrances and exits, apposition and counter-point through the medium of Revue. The latter was also the best school of dramaturgy of the lot – particularly if one were writing the show oneself. Opener, closer, first half climax, sketch versus musical number, whimsy versus blockbuster, the success of a traditional revue depended on a crucial balance of audience manipulation and extreme discipline. Do your own lighting, design your own sets. A training almost impossible to get these days. Invaluable. And in a way, safer than fucking up plays and actors.
It soon became clear, however, that if I were to make my way in the world of theatre my quizzical, existential view of the world would be better expressed through directing plays, rather than by writing sketches about Eamonn Andrews and doing take-offs with Terry of the Everly Brothers (rather good ones, though I say it myself) or writing revues with titles such as Still Crackers, Cucu, JugJug, Puwee, Nuts in May and Baked Beans and Cold Rice Pudding etc.,.
I formed a company with the late Ralph Bates, a fine actor whose triumphs were mostly confined to screen and television, and Joanna van Gysegham, the grand-daughter of Johnston Forbes Robertson and the daughter of Jean Forbes Robertson and Andre van Gysegham, a founder of the Unity Theatre. Ralph and Jo were sleeping partners (literally – they married, with me as best man), responsible for putting up the money. The Company was resident at the Gas Company Theatre, Dun Laoghaire – Kingstown as it was known to the residents of this leafy port some 10 miles south of Dublin where the boat comes in from Holyhead. On many a grey dawn have I seen, with relief, the church spires thrusting towards the Wicklow mountains after a night spent throwing up.
The Gas Company Theatre was situated in Dun Laoghaire High Street (it is now a cafe). The entrance was through the gas cookers in the showroom to a lecture auditorium at the back, seating some 200. Above the stage, embroidered in gold on a red velvet pelmet, in letters 6 ft high, was the word GAS (fittingly enough, Irishism for “fun”). The stage was 17ft wide by 12 deep with no way round the back. It was here that throughout the fifties the Globe Theatre Company operated, with talent such as Godfrey Quigley, Norman Rodway, Donal Donnelly, Paddy Bedford, Maureen Toal, Anna Manahan, Pauline Delaney, Jack McGowran and others. The Company moved to the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in the sixties, and then most of them to London.
We set up shop here in ‘64, doing it all ourselves. On Saturday afternoons, it would be down to the pier and give away tickets or sell 3 for 1, 4 for 1 – anything ….. Audiences were on the youthfully challenged side. The buzzing of hearing aids interfered with the lights (all six of them), the two end seats of each row were removed to make way for the wheel chairs and a wheeze could be easily confused with a laugh.
One day Teddy Rhodes rode into town, an actor in wolf’s clothing. He convinced me that the play, Wolf’s Clothing, would pack them in (to coffins, I remarked – cynically). It was my first encounter with the professional’s professional. He gave me the run around. He’d done the play (and the part) about a hundred times and knew all the tricks and a few more. I became more and more humiliated. Wasn’t I supposed to be the director? Wasn’t he supposed to listen to me? Why were all my ideas so wrong? With ego bumps sprouting like Brussels all over my psyche, I finally shouted (blush, blush, shame, shame) “If you’re so bloody clever, then you can do it all without me!” and I stormed out and sat in the pub waiting for them to come and fetch me, prostrate themselves, pathetically beg my forgiveness, pleading that they couldn’t continue without me.
I sat there for an hour. Just one pint. Then I went to the cafe for half an hour. A cup of tea. Then, abjectly, I crept back into the theatre at the back of the auditorium. They were already on to the second act. I moved down a few rows. Then a few more. Finally, from about Row 4 I made a remark. Everyone carried on as if nothing had happened. Nobody even mentioned the incident. I vowed that never again would I indulge myself in fits of pique; that, if feeling vulnerable, I would take a deep breath, stay calm and work my way through it. This is a rule I’ve applied to this day. It is easy to be hurt. Under pressure, many people say cruel things. Either grin and bear it or give back as good as you can get. Sometimes difficult if the actor, Bill Wallis, is 50 yards away down The Cut, retreating from the Young Vic Theatre, shouting “You’re a cunt, Bogdanov”. “So are you” doesn’t quite have the same pith about it.
In 1965 I got the job of assistant electrician (!) on the touring production of Stephen D by Hugh Leonard, the play that first brought Norman Rodway and T P McKenna to London. It was directed by Jim Fitzgerald, who, in the space of six weeks, taught me more about lighting than I had learnt before or have learnt since. He took me through the lamps, the gels, the focusing, the effects, all in the process of 3 days technically mounting the show. A wonderful director, a wonderful teacher, a wonderful man with a drink problem. He went on a bender in Zurich; I was the only member of the company who could speak German. The set had been impounded due to a strike in Liverpool. The technical team in the Zuricher Schauspielhaus went to work and in 36 hours had produced a better set than the one we had left behind, which had taken 3 weeks to build ….. In Paris, Fitz went missing altogether. I was the only one who could speak French. I had to take over as director, staging the show, doing the lighting, giving notes. From humble beginnings…. And all on £2 10s a week. When I got back to Dublin, Brendan Smith, avuncular Chef of the Dublin Theatre Festival, showed his appreciation. He gave me a fiver. It pays to speak other languages.
Ten years in Ireland taught me a life-long love of Irish traditional music, from the moment in 1959 at the Wexford Festival, when the door of the snug of the Waterfront Bar burst open and three strapping lads carrying a Tricolour, burst in and, standing to attention, sang Kevin Barry. It was the anniversary of the Wexford Martyr’s hanging. I shrank in the corner, a blue Brit in a blue shit. They then sat down and ran through the gamut of songs that were to become standards, Whiskey in the Jar, The Quare Bungle Rye, The Holy Ground – accompanied by a Bodhran player (skin drum), a fiddler and a tin whistle player who materialised at different times from nowhere. I was hooked.
For a spell I had my own radio programme on RTE, singing original compositions laced with traditional ballads. It was called “Rhythm and Roundelay” and featured Andre Prieur and the 7 piece Casino Orchestra. He’d do a number, I’d do a number. In between I would come up with pithy comments on the week’s events – a sort of poor man’s Ned Sherrin. I was performing throughout an Equity strike. I didn’t realise that I was being a black leg. One week the programme went out nine times. Every time I turned the radio on, there was this voice squawking – “I am a weary and a lonesome traveller” – to the sound of three chords on a tinny guitar bought for £4 off a man who was emigrating to Alaska to look for gold. (True)
The summer of ’62 I got smashed up in a car crash, hitching back from Paris, was hospitalized in Abbeville, finished my finals four months late, ending up in plaster up to my thigh.. I had been due to return to Britain in the autumn to write a TV series for ATV with Terry Brady and here I was, still in Dublin in deepest January, on crutches, with the snow knee deep. John Molloy, an angular mime artist came to my rescue, asked me to write a few sketches for a Revue he was doing at The Gate Theatre – Say Nothin’. And that is how I met The Dubliners.
The Dubliners – ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower….’ – at once proof of a life to be lived and the absurdity of it. Ronnie Drew, a voice like crushed coke (the black kind) and Barney McKenna were the first two members of the group. Ronnie used to sleep under my bed. I’ve still got a pair of his winkle-pickers from his smelly days. Barney would sit on a stool in O’Donoughue’s, 20 pints to the bad, and play his banjo like a god. He was a telephone wire repairer. One day a pole fell on his foot and he was off for six weeks. Every time he had to report to the Doctor, he would hit his toe with a hammer…. He hadn’t worked for nine months. But he had played his banjo.
I was the first to put The Dubliners on stage in a show entitled “The Hootenanny Ballad and Blues Show”, also at the Gate Theatre. Also performing were Dominic Behan, brother of Brendan, and Alex Campbell, the Scottish folk singer who I had first met in Paris in the Spring of 1958. My Existential period
The show was my first encounter with Luke Kelly. He had just returned to Ireland from a stint of working on the sites in Britain. “For we need the money your Daddy earns on England’s motorways” he sang. Luke was bull-sturdy, his head too big for his shoulders, a flame-red shock of hair and beard. He stood on the stage as if rooted to a rock, hands in pockets and sang …. You could feel the collective shiver thrill up the collective spine. He’s dead now – the drink. I chose Luke’s ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ for Desert Island Discs in his memory. He once said to Patsy, my wife – “You’re full of babies”. He was right.
For a spell I was the Dubliners’ roadie. Basically, that meant going on ahead, looking at the venue, sorting out the two or three rusty lamps – old Rob Roy arc-lights – clearing the stage and then re-tracing the road to find out which pub they were in. I had it down to a fine art. Look at the map, estimate the amount of time, diminishing, between stops for a drink, and then search every hostelry within a ten mile stretch. They defeated me only once.
We were in a barn of an old cinema in Limerick, seating 2,000. Curtain up (I use the term loosely) at 8 o’clock. Map out, calculate the route, off I set. Nowhere. I returned at 9.00 p.m. The crowd was somewhat restless. At 9.30, I made an announcement. They broke the place up. I caught up with the boys the next day back in town. They had got as far as the Red Cow in Naas, some 20 miles outside Dublin and hadn’t moved.
We arrived at one point in Mullingar for the Fladh Ceogh, the National climax of a series of local music and dance festivals that take place all over Ireland, – the exuberant, drunken, equivalent of the Welsh Eisteddfod. It was Friday afternoon. We got stuck into a small snug in a bar and started playing. And drinking bottles of stout. Saturday morning I left to go back to Dublin to do some editing of a TV programme at Radio Telefis Eireann “(I was by now a Producer/Director in Light Entertainment with RTE having completed a six month training course with the BBC in London and returned immediately to Ireland). I returned on Saturday evening. They were still where I had left them. The bottles were river deep, mountain high. Barney was slumped against the wall, still playing. Ceiran Bourke, now also dead, still whistling. John Sheehan, tee-total, drinking orange juice, still fiddling. Ronnie, still croaking.
They went through that Saturday night and Sunday morning. I laid them out to sleep in a field on Sunday afternoon, then drove them back to Dublin.
Ronnie died a few years back of throat cancer. Another chunk of my life erased. The older, the narrower the memories become. The circle of wagons gets ever smaller and the Indians are closing in.
I was an amateur drinker in Ireland. Irish whisky and Guiness. When I got back to England, I found I could drink most people under the table, surprised to see people keeling over after a mere 6 pints and a half-dozen or so whiskies ….. ‘An Irishman is the only man in the world who’ll climb over 12 naked women to get to a bottle of stout’ (Anon). The creative energy and sheer joy of singing and storytelling is infectious and the bug, once caught, never leaves you. Irish unpredictability, the unorthodox, skew-whiff approach to logic and life, leaves you breathless at the sheer audacity of minds that leap, twist, flash and turn like salmon at the falls. The frustrating side of this was captured in Hilton Edwards’ (founder with Michael MacCliamoir of the Gate Theatre) exasperated remark that “the Irish and the Dutch should change places. In no time, the Dutch would turn this scraggy, chaotic, fertile land into an agricultural paradise and, at the same time, the Irish would forget to fill in the holes in the dykes and drown”. Brendan Behan said to me once “If it was raining soup, the Irish would come out with forks”.
After 10 years in Ireland I have a horror of doing Irish plays with any actors other than Irish. The English try to pin down the elusive Celtic butterfly soul with a sledgehammer. The Irish leapfrog England to middle Europe, the last vestiges of a culture and a language that was once spoken the length and breadth of the continent. The deep, dark despair, the laughter and tears, storytelling and music, the religion, the politics, a sense of the cultural belonging that is once again manifesting itself in Latvia, Lithuania, Rumania, Estonia….. It is a world strongly alien to the English psyche, unfathomable, deeply mysterious and one which, to be honest, they are not very interested in…until they go there. I love them. The Irish that is.
I woke up when I was 29. I had been eleven years in Dublin and was beginning to quarrel with Ireland politically, religiously and socially. It was the beginning of the Troubles – passionate speeches in Irish from table tops in the canteen.. Bastard English… Even though I don’t have a drop of English blood in me I decided it was time to leave. I had enjoyed my stint as a Producer/Director in RTE but I hankered after theatre. When I was offered yet another live Showband Show on the road (they wouldn’t let me do drama – I was the clown who wanted to play Haml;et) we loaded son and Hoover into the car and headed for Wales. Ireland – Wales? One Celtic cocoon for another.
My mother’s family, she was one of thirteen siblings, is from Neath – Castell Nedd in Welsh, Neath Castle – a stone’s throw from Abertawe, ‘The Mouth of the River Tawe’, Dylan Thomas’ ugly, lovely town of Swansea. We left when I was three, my mother taking us up to join my father in the East End of London at the height of the Blitz. The bombs were preferable to living with her mother. I returned in 1969 at the age of 30 searching for a place to live.
I crested the brow of a small pitch and there it was, nestling in the sunlight below me, the front half hidden by a profusion of runner beans and chrysanthemums. Tafarn-y-Crydd – The Shoemakers Arms Pentrebach, a pub four miles north of Sennybridge, Breconshire, on the lonely edge of the Mynydd Epynt. This was once the largest and highest area of mountain plateau sheep farming in the British Isles. Now it is an Army range – its fields pock-marked and scarred by shells, the walls of its scattered farmhouses blackened with the fires of raw recruits huddling for warmth among the ruins. Where once Welsh was borne on the winds and the backs of wild ponies, Lancaster, Birmingham and Belfast pierce the cries of hawk and kite. Though sheep may still safely graze (relatively), bullets lay claim to the freedom of the air.
It was September 1969. Six weeks later we moved in – my wife and I and two small children of eighteen months and six weeks. Martyn lewis drove up from Swansea and John Gardner down from Liverpool to help. People came from miles around to see the new owners, Saturday lunchtime, handing the furniture over heads, through the bar and up through a hatch in the floor to the interconnected bedrooms above. A total of thirty six children had been born up there in the conjunctive brass and wooden bed, left behind at our request.
This was the first time the pub had passed out of the hands of the Williams family in 100 years. A two storey Welsh cottage, the front room a bar. Hand-tapped beer and poured from a jug. No toilet, empty the Elsan in the stream that ran past the door.( Oh dear!) Sunday was a tin bath in front of the fire.
Champion shearers, hedgers, sewers, bakers – the remnants of that Epynt way lived on in the Cilieni and Eithrin valleys, their meeting point the Shoemakers Arms. Births, marriages, deaths, anniversaries, the sports, the choir, the parish council, the trip to Cardiff, Phantom, Smithfield, The Royal Welsh, the match…. all emanated, took place, were celebrated, planned and executed from that small bar. Nothing North, East or West for twelve miles. Except sheep, snow, rain, wind…. Sennybridge, that bursting metropolis of 500 souls, a lifetime away 4 miles down below. We are talking serious community here.
The backs grow straighter, the pints held tighter, the voices begin to swell. What started at 10pm as an isolated sporadic assault on the aural senses within half an hour has soared to a joyous crescendo of deep, high mellifluous harmonies. The babble and banter of sheep and potatoes, beetroot and hedging, tractors and trout, were stilled as the bar paid homage to the unmistakable music of the Welsh male voice.
‘Hwyl’ – an untranslatable Welsh word for a mood of togetherness, longing, a community communing. Will the Garth, Dai Cefn, John Garth, Alwyn Nant-y-Sebon, Vivian the Rhiw – all known by the names of the farms they live in – their ruddy capped faces pressed clear-eyed together, and the more drink taken the better the sound. Hymns, songs of love, praise of the Lord, the Chapel upbringing running deep in the psyche of the Welsh spirit. A curious mixture, the Lord and alcohol, and deep in the Celtic soul amid the laughter and delight, a mystic yearning that brings tears. Mae hen wlad fy nhadau – Land of my Fathers.
A million people speak Welsh as a first language. It has withstood the ravages and assaults of Romans, Angles, Saxons, Brits and latterly everything that Television could throw at it, to survive, dark and beautiful in the hills and valleys from Carreg Cennan to Cader Idris and on a Saturday night, on high days and feast days, in hostelries north and south such as Tafarn y Crydd – The Shoemakers Arms, Pentrebach, Llandeilo’r Fan, a community of some fifty souls nestling on the slopes of the Mynydd Eppynt (Mountain of Wild Ponies). Welsh song born on the wings of ale and stout, bands a land together that forever keeps a laughing welcome in its hillsides.
I laugh here like I never laugh anywhere else in the world. The capacity of the people – born together, living together, dying together – to enjoy each others company, day in day out, never ceases to fill me with wonder and amazement. Even when up to their eyeballs in sheep-shit, their necks in mud, their chins in water and their shoulders in snow still they laugh. In Llandeilo’rfan. Population 56.
After six months of running The Shoemakers Arms up in the Welsh hills, the muscular ache of beer-barrel reality was superseded by the spiritual ache for make-believe. I knew that if I were going to begin again in theatre, I would have to get to grips with Shakespeare. It made sense to go to the one place where they knew more about Shakespeare than anywhere else in the world. So I thought….
I rang Terry Hands, who was then an Associate and Director of Theatre-Go-Round at the RSC. Terry and I were old friends from his Liverpool Everyman days where I had directed my very first production on English soil, my own musical version of Moliere’s The Hypochondriac, set in the 20s.
‘Any jobs going?’, I asked.
‘We’re interviewing for assistant directors tomorrow, get up here as fast as you can’.
They were all there, a full house of the RSC Directorate, – John Barton, Trevor Nunn, Terry, David Jones. I laid down the law about the educational role of theatre. They didn’t seem very impressed. I went back to Wales thinking I’d blown it. The next day, Terry rang to say I’d got the job, start immediately.
Read Michael Bogdanov on a life with Shakespeare here.
Peter Brook once said to me – “Charles Marowitz was the best assistant I ever had”. His small white hands, hardly those of a “hard handed man” fluttered in a characteristic gesture and he laughed. “Whatever he said I always did the opposite. It invariably worked”.
Being an assistant director is usually a thankless task – make the tea, run errands, audition the children. I’ve done all these things and sometimes find myself asking others to do them. And yet used creatively, an assistant director may make a massive contribution to the success of a piece of work. If you make the assumption that the constant companion at your shoulder is not a rival for your job or planning to take over the production by inciting the company to mutiny, then they can provide you with valuable support, acting as a catalyst, a sounding-board for ideas and discussion. The roll-call of assistants I’ve had makes for impressive reading: Jude Kelly, Sean Holmes, Charley Hanson, Antonia Bird, Tim Carroll, Justin Greene, Jonathan Church, Tim Baker, Michael Attenborough, Sue Pomeroy, Giles Block….
So, in 1970 I became an Assistant Director at the RSC. The real world …. I was one and a half years there, at 30 the oldest assistant they had ever had. At £25 a week and with two small children it was 100% drop in salary from my wage in TV, was I sure that I wanted to do it, they asked
Terry, responsible for getting me to the RSC in the first place, handed the children over to me to work with in his production of Richard III with Norman Rodway in the title role, and treated any ideas I had with icy contempt.
Trevor Nunn whispered to Alan Howard (Hamlet) in corners, the play set in the ice and snow of mid-winter in what became known as the “polar bear Hamlet” due to the heavy white fur coats that clad the entire cast, and to this day I don’t know what Trevor thought the play was about.
John Barton mumbled and stumbled his way through Measure for Measure, revealed himself surprisingly not to be the pedant that the theatre world had come to see him as, but extremely theatrical and willing to admit when stumped. He gave me the prison scene to direct. I tried to involve the whole company in the ‘dance of the lunatics’ – the entrance of the inmates with Ben Kingsley, Claudio, leading a chorus of “The fit’s upon me now”. Ian Richardson, Angelo, wisely ducked out of this exercise in democratic ensemble commitment. John Barton looked horrified when I unveiled this piece of non-naturalistic nonsense to him. He puffed on his cigarette, removed it, scratched his beard and then stuck his cigarette back in his mouth the wrong way round, lighted end first. Maybe it was the burnt tongue that stopped him properly questioning the intention behind the scene. It found its way into performance. John never did have the heart to tell me that it just didn’t fit with his production.
Robin Phillips, director of Two Gentlemen of Verona couldn’t cope with Philip Manikum as Speed – they seemed to talk at cross purposes all the time – and handed his scenes over to me. I was on Phil’s wavelength, able to follow his quirky way of communicating at one brain removed. I got to rehearse all the Launce and Speed scenes with Patrick Stewart. And a real dog. I turned Phil into a beach vendor, baseball cap, Bermuda shorts, dark glasses, a vending tray, whistle in his mouth, and a football rattle which he whirled incessantly as he cried “Cacouettes! Cacouettes!” The rattle kept disappearing. Each time I asked the stage management team for it, the reply was that they didn’t know where it had gone. I bought two new ones during the course of rehearsals, before realising that they were hiding it away from me. Robin hated it. I now know why..
John Barton and Robin Phillips co-directed a production of The Tempest, or rather, John did, while Robin looked sulkily on. It was here, during one of those extended technical note sessions for which Stratford was famous during previews, where we were counter-productively up all night for the third time running, that I achieved the ultimate in assistant directorial insensitivity. I suggested at 3.30 a.m. to Christopher Morley (designer) that the log that Ferdinand was carrying looked like Snoopy (it did). Chris went berserk, throwing chairs, shouting and running screaming all around the old Conference Hall rehearsal room (now the Swan Theatre). John puffed on his cigarette, Robin played with his beads and Trevor Nunn gazed unblinkingly at the floor. Chris sat down and we carried on as normal.
Which leaves Peter Brook and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It was enormously fortuitous that my time as assistant coincided with that of one of the great theatre magicians of the twentieth century returning to the RSC to work on one of the great seminal productions of that era. For close on three years I lived and breathed that production, long after I had left Stratford. I worked on the London transfer, spent three weeks working on my own with the replacements for the New York run, passed the summer in Paris as Associate re-rehearsing at the Gobelins for the World Tour, and had the good fortune to visit the production world wide to supervise both the ‘get-in’ and to take notes, flying at one point from Sao Paolo in Brazil, where I was directing Os Dos Caballeros di Verona (The Two Gentlemen of Verona) to Chicago and back again over a week-end.
(The first day at the Gobelins had begun with a disaster. Terry Taplin, Lysander, eager to try out the physical possibilities of the set, stupidly vaulted from the top of the walkway down to the floor below. It was solid concrete. Terry crushed both his heels. I had to ferry him in my battered Morris Minor Convertible, top down, Terry upended on the back seat, legs dangling out the back, across Paris to the American Hospital where he was operated on, a dozen thin plates being inserted in his heels to build them up again. He was unable to walk for six months. Bruce Myers replaced him at short notice.)
Peter was the first director at the RSC to treat me as an equal, ask my opinion, listen, take me with him to all planning meetings where he took a perverse delight in deflecting questions my way that were put to him. ‘What do you think Michael?’ Peter was a confirmation of many things that up to that moment I had instinctively grasped, but had little or no occasion to put into practice. He is unafraid of experiment, of going up blind alleys, improvising, using all kinds of exercises to stretch and expand mind and body. He built up a sense of the text through a ruthless investigation of the sub-text, elevating it onto another level, spiritual, subliminal, by the systematic elimination of false emotions and values, challenging the actors to go further and deeper into themselves than ever before, exposing parts of their psyche that had remained buried within. If you followed him on this journey into the unknown, the result could be either exhilarating or terrifying; if you didn’t, you took refuge in the tricks of the trade.
It was dangerous, this release of primal energy, a fact that I was acutely aware of in the years to come in employing similar methods. Actors out of control of their minds and their bodies are a danger to others and to themselves. Tampering with the psychological makeup, asking them to put themselves totally in your hands is a precious trust that cannot be abused. When it is – that way madness lies, and before the Dream was over there had been a suicide and several breakdowns.
The experience of The Dream had made my decision to begin again at the age of 30 as an assistant director at Stratford, worthwhile. It made me realise that, despite the offer of a further year and the carrot of a production of Miss Julie with Donal McCann and Helen Mirren at The Place (Robin Phillips did it), I had to get out and put my ideas into practice. Trevor called me into his office at the end and asked me if he thought I had worked hard that year. Sometimes, I said. He looked at me with those unblinking eyes of his, then nodded. Sometimes …..
Dipping into my memory bank for this website has been somewhat akin to blindly pinning the tail on the donkey, or thrusting a hand into the bran tub to see what emerges. There are, I realise, still lots of bits and pieces of all shapes and sizes – the good, the bad and the x-factor – nestling in the sawdust waiting to be plucked out. In the 45 years since I ‘sometimes’ worked hard I’ve notched up nearly 300 productions or revivals on stage, and over 150 programmes on TV and film. That’s a lot of fucking work.
Michael Bogdanov, July 2015