Shakespeare was boring, Shakespeare was dead, Shakespeare was a necessary slog through the tangled undergrowth of caesura, etymology, anglo-saxon, middle high German, grammatical obscurity in search of the Golden A-level English Fleece. Jason had it easy. One whole term spent on one whole Hamlet soliloquy – ‘How all occasions…..’ lessons courtesy of Mr. Cowton, a Pickwickian figure given to spouting chunks of Chaucer in what he authoratively informed us was the original 14th century accent (how did he know?) As far as 15 year old schoolboys intent on smuggling copies of Health and Effiency into the back row were concerned Hamlet’s problem could be solved simply by having a good ……
But then came Richard Burton. The magical, sensational seasons of ’54-56′ at the Old Vic. A school trip to see the Dane, perching on the hard 1/6d benches up in the gods. A revelation. Shakespeare was alive, Shakespeare was modern, Shakespeare was real. His language rang of the street. No filtering phrases through a pound of plums but an electrifying Welsh twang. Burton was Burton, others were characters. But he, like another young Welshman some ten years later, Anthony Hopkins, tore the language apart and stuck it back together again in a fashion that made absolute sense even to Brylcream quiffed fifth form sceptics. I went back to see him again and again – Coriolanus, Othello/Iago alternating with John Neville, Henry V – a new hero to go alongside my discovery of Sartre and Camus. Shakespeare the conservative mutated into Shakespeare the existentialist. The readiness was all.
I decided not to study English at University – Trinity College Dublin – but opted instead for French and German (thereby giving myself a banging headache with the latter – anyone for Old German?) indulging in the double-think of (a) languages in later life being more useful (ironically with German this has turned out to be true), and (b) I could always read up anything I wanted in English. I stayed in Dublin 11 drunken years in TV and theatre and, except for the odd critical excursion to see some old fashioned ham perpetrated by the Agnew MacMaster company, or the blood and thunder of a visiting Wolfit, Shakespeare was noticeable for his absence . I didn’t come back to Shakespeare until I was 30.
After a run of Revue, Ballad Concerts, Show Bands, Musicals and 125 programmes as Producer/Director for RTE – the Irish National TV company – I returned to the UK determined to immerse myself in Shakespeare. And so I became the oldest Assistant Director ever at the place where I mistakenly thought they knew more about Shakespeare than anywhere else in the world – the RSC.
Forged on the anvil of my Russian father’s Marxism and the Labour fire of my Welsh Valleys mother, the lack of political engagement by the Avon dismayed me, and, with the exception of the gloriously groundbreaking exuberance of Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I did not take much from assisting a galaxy of illustrious names except the confirmation that Will’s work contained a lot more invisible bullets (pace Stephan Greenblatt) than we were being shown. And so, after 18 months, I left to flex my own bardic muscles. The Wars of the Roses, Cultural Materialism and abusive letters from apoplectic Colonels were all in the future.
Meanwhile, eyes bright with misunderstanding, I embarked on a quest to pluck out the political, existential heart and mystery of the plays, sometimes despairing – As You Like It, Cymbeline, Anthony and Cleo – sometimes exultant – Measure, Julius Caesar, The Shrew ( I could add Hamlet, Romeo, The Henrys and the Richards) – a quest that has led me down the path of some 70 productions – from Newcastle to Leicester, from The Young Vic back to Stratford, and world wide. Some plays I have returned to over and over again – The Tempest five times. The trouble is I never get it more than half right. The trouble is it’s never the same half. But anyway, what is ‘right’? Directing is often a case not of knowing what you want but knowing what you don’t want. I shall try again….
Michael Bogdanov, June 2015