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
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'