Storming the ramparts

The director Michael Bogdanov has assembled an all-Welsh cast to reinterpret Shakespeare at Ludlow Castle. The Bard sounds better in a Celtic voice, he tells James Rampton
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When he was associate director of the Tyneside Theatre Company in Newcastle in the 1970s, Michael Bogdanov took time off to learn the craft of sheep-shearing from a New Zealander master and went to work with a local shearing team for three weeks one summer. He is now working on a book about the subject and has made a documentary for Tyne Tees TV called - you've guessed it - Shear Genius. He says, laughing, that he must be the only professional theatre director in the world who is also an expert sheep-shearer. Well, can you think of another?

This director - who has also spent time running a pub in remotest Wales (the Shoemakers Arms in Pentrebach, in Powys, South Wales) and hitch-hiking across the USA and Mexico - is full of such surprises. And he has sprung another one with his latest duo of productions. For his outdoor stagings of The Merchant of Venice and The Winter's Tale, which are running in repertory at the Ludlow Festival, Bogdanov has assembled an all-Welsh cast.

Headed by Philip Madoc, who is perhaps best known as the lead in Channel 5's detective drama A Mind to Kill, and who is playing Shylock and the Old Shepherd in these productions, the cast also features such stalwarts as Brian Hibbard (from the left-wing pop group The Flying Pickets) in the roles of Gratiano and Autolycus, and Heledd Baskerville as Portia. The company is already making a mark; The Western Mail has described it as "the Welsh National Theatre-in-waiting".

The director is not slow to pick up on the delicious irony of an all-Welsh cast performing at the foot of Ludlow Castle, a formidable 11th-century English edifice. "It's a strange situation," he grins. "An entirely Welsh company is storming Ludlow Castle, which was originally built to keep the Welsh out!"

So what is the thinking behind the all-Welsh concept? Is this unique selling-point just a bit of gimmicky stunt casting? At his home in Cardiff, the director is adamant that the idea is well thought out. "Like the Irish, the Welsh have an instinctive use of language that comes from the gut," reckons Bogdanov, who was born in Neath and has a distinctive Welsh lilt in his voice.

"I passionately believe that Shakespeare sounds much better when it is delivered in a Celtic voice. Celtic actors have a warmth, a passion and a clarity that a lot of English 'head' actors just don't possess. I'm not saying that English actors can't perform Shakespeare - no, that would be ridiculous. But sometimes they can become hung up on a textual complexity that obscures the arrow-like simplicity Shakespeare requires.

"They get bogged down in emphasising the literary side - and that often gets in the way of clarity. Many of the towering giants of Shakespearean acting have been Welsh or Irish because they have taken the language by the scruff of the neck and given it a good shake."

In Bogdanov's eyes, the real villain of the piece is that staple of every English drama-school curriculum: received pronunciation (RP). "I find Shakespeare much more exciting when there's an accent that really uses the language, bends the vowels and tests out the diphthongs. Then, all of a sudden, the language has colour.

"In Shakespeare's time, spelling had not even been formalised, let alone pronunciation. His plays would have been packed with different accents - Welsh, Scottish, Midlands, Geordie, Cumberland, Yorkshire. For a London audience, it must have been really exciting to hear all those voices. All that RP nonsense was invented only about 100 years ago, around the time that academics dreamt up the concept of 'English literature' as a subject to be studied."

The director laments, "Then, actors started to get caught up in that terrible plummy way of speaking Shakespeare. We began to view the plays as poetry rather than as a dramatic way of communicating emotion. Shakespeare is not inaccessible - it's just taught and presented in an inaccessible way. When I made the BBC film Shakespeare on the Estate on a sink estate in Birmingham, some of the actors were illiterate, drunken wife-beaters, but they were still able to deliver the speeches with terrific clarity.

"Any accent gives a play life. That's why Barrie Rutter has succeeded so well with his Northern Broadsides productions, in which all the characters speak with Yorkshire accents. I love colour in language - and the Welsh have that in abundance."

He points to the great Welsh interpreters of Shakespeare in the past half-century, titanic figures such as Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins. "They dominated the British stage in their time. Now they have a natural heir in Michael Sheen [the magnetic young Welsh actor, who is from the same town as Burton and Hopkins - Port Talbot - and gave an acclaimed Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Company]. Like them, he has an instinct for the vibrancy of language - it's a gut thing. Actors like that transcend literary analysis. They go beyond the text and speak directly to the emotions."

Bogdanov, who has been exploring this territory for The Welsh in Shakespeare, a BBC documentary that he has just finished editing, thinks that the Bard had a great affinity with the Welsh spirit. That was manifested not only in such memorable Welsh characters as Henry V (who professes his Welsh credentials no fewer than three times during the play), Fluellen and Williams in Henry V, Owen Glendower and Lady Mortimer in Henry IV Part One, the Welsh Captain in Richard II, and Sir Hugh Evans in The Merry Wives of Windsor, but in the fact that at least three Welsh actors (by the names of Price, Gough and Cross) worked in the playwright's own company.

According to Bogdanov, "Shakespeare is particularly benevolent toward Wales. He views the Welsh culture and temperament as something to be prized rather than despised. In Cymbeline, for instance, the characters flee from the stifling Puritanism of the English court to the primitive utopia of Pembrokeshire, where they can work out their democratic ideas. Shakespeare was always keen to explore alternative forms of living and the egalitarian ideals that elude us within a hierarchical system. He saw Wales as a place where those concepts of freedom could flourish."

The director hopes that his Ludlow company will set a trend in the land of his fathers. "Welsh theatre is in a parlous state," he sighs. "It's non-existent, really. There's only one adult producing theatre in the whole country, Theatr Clwyd, and 65 per cent of its audiences come from the north-west of England. Ludlow presents the only current opportunity to get together a large-scale Welsh theatre company - and it happens to be outside Wales!"

Bogdanov first attempted to set up a National Theatre of Wales in 1999, but was defeated by bureaucracy. "We Welsh have a great capacity for shooting ourselves in both feet and the head at the same time," Bogdanov declares. "If a camel is a horse designed by committee, then in Wales, a committee is a horse designed by a camel.

"We tie ourselves in unbelievable knots. There's a great belief in social democracy in Wales, but too often that leads to the cult of the amateur. In the arts, all the focus is on the grass roots, and taking part is seen as more important than achieving. That's why it's exasperating. At the same time, it's a beautiful country. The Welsh may have one foot in the 19th century, but the one in the 21st century is slowly dragging it forward. The dragon is stirring."

Bogdanov is helping it back to life by setting up a new outfit, The Wales Theatre Company, which launches at the Grand Theatre in Swansea this October with a new production of Under Milk Wood to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dylan Thomas's death.

Even though he is now 64, Bogdanov has lost none of his trademark youthful passion. He is still quite capable of getting fired up over a range of topics. Listen, for example, to his pent-up rage about theatre reviewers. "It amazes me how banal the musings of our critics are," he fumes. "It's their lack of an international perspective that frustrates me. I don't think they fully understand what the rest of Europe is on about. I read the critics and look forward to plays they have liked, but within half an hour my stomach has usually dropped with disappointment.

"A lot of the productions they praise are rhetorical or 'head' theatre. They revere David Hare and Tom Stoppard. Hare is the acceptable face of radicalism, but he's about as radical as a boot. And European playwrights may not write as exquisitely as Stoppard, but, boy, their work doesn't half pack a punch.

"Our theatrical culture is not risk-taking. It's created in the English-literature departments of Oxford and Cambridge."

Bogdanov has had a fantastically varied career. He won the 1979 Society of West End Theatres award for director of the year for his RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew, before working for eight years as an associate director at the National Theatre. There, Mary Whitehouse tried to bring a private prosecution against him for gross indecency, for staging a simulated male rape scene in The Romans in Britain.

The director went on to co-found the English Shakespeare Company and work in countries as diverse as the US, Japan, Australia, Germany, Norway, India, Ireland, Sierra Leone, Denmark, Ghana, Italy, Malawi, Canada, Austria and Namibia.

Showing no sign of slowing down, Bogdanov is still fizzing with ideas. As well as Under Milk Wood, he is preparing to direct a play in Hamburg and an opera in Cologne. He is also nurturing three long-cherished musical adaptations - the unlikely trio of The Thorn Birds, The Merry Wives of Windsor and Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Somehow, he also still finds the time to co-run the Shoemakers Arms in Pentrebach.

All in all, he has packed more into one lifetime than most of us would manage in a dozen. "I don't know if I've had a fascinating life," he smiles. "I've just done a few silly things."

Maybe, but Bogdanov has added greatly to the gaiety of nations in the process.

'The Merchant of Venice' and 'The Winter's Tale' are at the Ludlow Festival (01584 872150; to 12 July