Michael Boyd: Shakespeare

The director of the RSC believes that the Bard's influence reaches beyond the stage
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The Independent Culture

Christina," says a stern voice at the back of the room, "what's going on?" Oh my God. What's going on is that I had to get up extremely early to get a train to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch Michael Boyd in rehearsal with actors on his next play, and what's going on is that I was hoping to sit in a semi-comatose (and, I assumed, invisible) state for a while as my coffee kicked in, and what's going on is that one actor is cradling another actor's head in her lap, and saying something about a snake and a lake and some kind of meal that somebody is preparing, and what's going on is that I haven't got a clue what's going on.

But I know the play is called The Grain Store, and that it's set in Ukraine at a time of famine, and the guy with his head in the lap of the woman has his mouth wide open, and is either dying of hunger or a halfwit, so I have a stab. "It's, er, about hunger, and about food." Michael Boyd, a professorial figure in white shirt and black suit, looks pained. "Right," he says, addressing the actors, "I think we need to make that a bit clearer."

And for the next hour, they do. "I think you can lengthen the food words," he says to the young woman. "Think of Beckett," he says, "keep the conversation going, as long as we're talking, we're alive" And I too think of Beckett, waiting for Godot, waiting for lunch, as I watch the complex, torturous process of bringing the words on the page alive on the stage. On the wall are black-and-white photos of Russian peasants. On a table underneath them are books on Soviet theatre. This, clearly, is not a process that anyone takes lightly.

I can't say I'm devastated to sneak out and into the sunshine, and down streets lined with pretty hanging baskets and some extremely alluring shops, and along the river, where people are eating ice-creams, and past the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which is currently undergoing an £113m renovation and is due to reopen next year, and on to the Courtyard Theatre to join the old ladies eating cake. And for the next three hours, while Boyd ploughs on with Ukrainian famine, I am in the Forest of Arden, in his production of As You Like It.

It is, it turns out, a world of music and magic and racial harmony and skinned rabbits and Bill Bailey-like figures singing in peculiar, mesmeric voices and couples torn apart, and bickering, and missing each other – and then, finally, all finding love. It is, in other words, a place of enchantment. By the time I emerge into a courtyard hung with hand-scrawled love poems, à la Orlando to Rosalind, I feel elated, as if the world is a strange, wonderful, sometimes cruel place, in which love can heal and even triumph. Which it is.

So what, I wonder, in my slightly febrile state, does it do to you, being exposed to this genius on a daily basis? Michael Boyd, who has emerged from Ukrainian famine, draws on a cigarette and sighs. "I don't know," he says, "but it's a privilege. You know, he's a great teacher, not just about how to make the best theatre, which is handy if you're running the RSC, but about mortality, about love, about how to live. There's a marriage of the wildly speculative metaphysical and very pragmatic in Shakespeare that is usually good advice."

We're sitting on a bandstand in a park by the river, and the sky is blue and the sun is shining, and the grass is a brilliant green. It feels a bit like the Forest of Arden, but being in the Forest of Arden, I'm reminded, isn't quite the same as creating it, and putting together that bubble of beauty and joy and romantic delight was probably as painstaking as piecing together that snake-lake-famine monologue I sat through earlier, and there's also the issue of budgets and funding and buildings and toilets. But the truth is that Boyd, who took over as director of the RSC six years ago, seems to be making a rather good fist of all of it. The £2.8m deficit he inherited from Adrian Noble (who appeared to have a wide-ranging talent for putting noses out of joint) has been wiped out. His Histories season, performed in Stratford in 2007, and at the Roundhouse in Camden last year, was hailed as a triumph.

Michael Boyd ran a theatre, the Tron in Glasgow, where he worked for 10 years. Does this explain his success where others have failed? Boyd gives an enigmatic smile. "I wouldn't," he says, "claim to have been more successful than my predecessors. I think Peter [Hall] was enormously successful in founding the company in the first place, and his successor, Trevor [Nunn] was phenomenally successful, and we're still benefiting enormously from the success of his Les Misérables."

Boyd, it's clear, bears more than a passing resemblance to a well-meaning, left-leaning, academic. His answers to questions, which range from the lengthy paragraph to the mini lecture, are peppered with praise for colleagues and peers and are conveyed with the air of someone wanting to explain something very, very important to someone not necessarily that bright. When I ask him, for example, whether art can make people better (which, it's fair to say, could trigger a PhD, or at least an Arts Council report), I get a response that would take up the rest of the interview, and takes in "the simple business of gathering in the same place at the same time", the need to assert what tribe we belong to, the importance of theatres engaging with their community, the fact that the RSC has both a regional and a national remit, and its education work, which, in a programme called the Learning and Performance Network, has, apparently, reached out to "a quarter of a million kids".

And when I ask him whether it's more scary to direct Hamlet or to play it, he says that it's more terrifying "by a smidgeon" to play it, and then adds that "it's as simple as working with someone who is as good as Matt Groening in terms of wit and comedy of recognition, as weighty as Beethoven, and with the same sense of brilliance, of pitch and rhythm, as terrifyingly clear-eyed in their metaphysic as Beckett, with all the unbelievable heart and vigour of Philip Roth or the brutality of Hughes or the brutal beauty of Picasso". Very nicely put, but it's not as though anyone's saying that the guy isn't much good. I mean we're not talking here about Little Britain.

It's slightly the same impulse that had Boyd declaring, when he took over as director of the RSC, that Shakespeare was "hot" and "horny". Yes, we know about Bottom and the hole in the wall and Othello and the beast with two backs. Does he really need to spell it out? This, after all, is still the most widely performed playwright in the world. It's great that second-generation Somalis can "come into Shakespeare and go, 'I get that, so don't tell me I can't do maths'" and that Shakespeare is "empowering", but do we really need to underline his usefulness? He is not, thank God, the NHS.

But whether or not he is useful, or good at getting people to do their maths, or assert their tribe, or "empowering", there's no doubt that he is powerful. What, I ask, still high from the songs of the Bill Bailey lookalike, is the best an audience can hope for? Boyd draws on his cigarette again. "Meet their husband?" he says, and he isn't joking. "Because they've shared something together. Start to address mortality in a gentle, but firm way. Realise what it is that has been screwing up their relationship for decades. Not feel lonely, as a result of being in that space with those people, but not feel press-ganged into being there. I mean," he adds, "I'm not sure that I'm brave enough to join a book club."

Oh come on. You're running a massive theatre company, for God's sake. You boss around some of the best actors in the world. I think you could manage a little chat about The Friday Night Knitting Club. This, certainly, is the tone of the desperate-to-be-democratic, access-is-all, media-friendly academic – which Boyd isn't. But it's an impression compounded when he says things like "the truth is always radical" and when the actors in his company (as quoted in the programme for As You Like It) talk about "investigating" status. The results are marvellous, but the process does sound a little bit like a cultural studies seminar at a former poly.

"How so?" says Boyd, looking baffled. "Which bit? There can be lots of mud accumulated on the canvas," he adds. "It's just cleaning. Shakespeare really can look after himself, but not every generation gets access to a clean understanding of him." A "clean" understanding? That sounds a little bit like certainty. "I think one of the things that Shakespeare's great at teaching," he explains, "is paradox, and two paradoxes that I'm very fond of is with the Histories we were a self-avowed ensemble revelling in, as well as criticising, tyranny, autocracy and rampant individualism and now with the next collective, we're doing a play about the catastrophe that was collectivisation and that's good because it will actually stop us being lazy about the received idea agitprop against Soviet collectivisation."

He is talking, of course, about The Grain Store, the play by Natal'ia Vorozhbit that forms part of Revolutions, a four-year celebration of theatre in Russia and the former Soviet Union that starts today. For Boyd, who studied directing in Moscow in 1979, when the KGB still sat in on rehearsals, it's a dream project. "I've never done a proper Russian play, and it's a great chance to take my head back there, and touch base again with that glorious, fascinating country that covers a sixth of the world's surface."

I'm sure, in Boyd's hands, that it will be fascinating, and that it will have a reach that extends beyond geopolitics, and history, and into the human soul. I'm sure of this because I think Boyd is a hugely talented theatre director who is much better at creating powerful work than talking about it, and because whatever it is that makes him sound a little earnest in conversation transforms on the stage into something that feels true. And because he is in touch with the main man.

"I was doing a show very early on at the RSC," he confides, "and I did the bullshitty thing of going to Shakespeare's grave and just checking in with the man himself, whether some decision I wanted to make was OK.

And then I focused on the inscription on the epitaph, which was 'cursed be he who disturbs my bones', which I sort of took as 'bugger off and leave me alone'. So," says Michael Boyd, with a rather sweet smile, "I went away and left him alone."

The Revolutions season starts with 'The Drunks' at the Courtyard Theatre tonight. www.rsc.org.uk