Michael Boyd: Shakespeare

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

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

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?
    Nightclubbing with Richard Young: The story behind his latest book of celebrity photographs

    24-Hour party person

    Photographer Richard Young has been snapping celebrities at play for 40 years. As his latest book is released, he reveals that it wasn’t all fun and games
    Michelle Obama's school dinners: America’s children have a message for the First Lady

    A taste for rebellion

    US children have started an online protest against Michelle Obama’s drive for healthy school meals by posting photos of their lunches
    Colouring books for adults: How the French are going crazy for Crayolas

    Colouring books for adults

    How the French are going crazy for Crayolas
    Jack Thorne's play 'Hope': What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    What would you do as a local politician faced with an impossible choice of cuts?

    Playwright Jack Thorne's latest work 'Hope' poses the question to audiences
    Ed Harcourt on Romeo Beckham and life as a court composer at Burberry

    Call me Ed Mozart

    Paloma Faith, Lana del Ray... Romeo Beckham. Ed Harcourt has proved that he can write for them all. But it took a personal crisis to turn him from indie star to writer-for-hire