Watching Sir Michael Boyd, as he arrives for our interview, I reflect that the last time I saw him was amid the crush at the Olivier Awards, where his company’s musical Matilda had just walked off with a hatful of gongs. Somehow I suspect he is happier in today’s environs.
We’re in a deserted rehearsal room in south London, piled high with books, scripts and the detritus that speaks of recent creative activity. This is where Boyd is rehearsing Boris Godunov, his swansong production as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s quiet – the actors have a day off today – but ranks of heavy Russian military overcoats, stacked thick in racks, await their cue.
It is to spend more time in rooms like this that Boyd is stepping down, after 10 years at the helm. “You can get a little bit closer to a sense of completeness in an art work than you can in an organisation,” he says, with a smile.
It’s a strikingly modest statement – the more so since Boyd’s time at the RSC has been extraordinarily successful. When he arrived as artistic director in 2003, the organisation was in crisis. It had a deficit of £2.8m, had lost its London home, and its future looked uncertain. Boyd has steered the company into a healthy financial state, overseen the much-needed transformation of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, recharged the company’s ensemble ethos and produced such landmark successes as The Complete Works Festival (2006) and the exhilarating Histories Cycle (2006-2008).
Of course there have been low points and there are things left undone. The company’s recent record for new plays remains chequered, for example, and Boyd admits that he will be “very jealous” the night the RSC opens a permanent London base. “But it’s fine that someone else has that excitement. To do that, I would have had to have stayed on for another five years. You should go while people are still trying to persuade you to stay,” he adds, wryly. “Because it won’t last forever.”
This sage sense of perspective is surely one of the secrets of Boyd’s success. He has combined quiet pragmatism with passion and the sort of visionary streak that prompted him to stage the entire history play cycle (eight plays) back to back with one close-knit ensemble. That sense of common endeavour, he says, gave him his proudest moments. It was a high point too for British drama: audiences flocked to steep themselves in three days of Shakespeare.
“There’s something wonderfully communal about such experiences,” says Boyd, when I ask him why such marathons are so popular. “To marry the depth of companionship that you feel with Tolstoy by the end of War and Peace with a social experience like that is a wonderful thing. And we have a crisis of congregation in our culture. There is something social, and I’d venture spiritual, about it that is important.”
So why is he leaving not with a Lear or a Tempest, but with a Russian text unknown to British audiences? The choice links back to the pivotal period he spent as a young director in Moscow, in 1980, where his belief in ensemble work was engendered. But that is not all, says Boyd.
“It [the Russian] is both the other great theatrical tradition, sitting next to the English language tradition, and it’s very different,” he explains. “And the difference is very salutary. The Russian tradition has influenced me in the way that I’ve worked at the RSC, emphasising the value of ensemble and artistic community.”
Boris Godunov, then, is an apt curtain call in more ways than one. It is, says Boyd, “a long overdue English language premiere” for Pushkin’s 19th-century epic, which has largely been overshadowed by Mussorgsky’s opera. But it also draws together the two strands of Boyd’s career and offers a chance to explore links. Pushkin’s text (translated here by Adrian Mitchell) is full of deliberate Shakespearean echoes and, above all, Shakespearean breadth.
“It was a genuine, passionate love affair,” says Boyd, of Pushkin’s affection for Shakespeare. “Shakespeare unlocked something for Pushkin in terms of an escape from the tyranny of formal French culture of the Russian court: a chance to embrace the passionate, visceral, vulgar nature of Russian culture. And Pushkin operated, like Shakespeare, under rigid censorship. Shakespeare gave him a masterclass in how to flow round it.”
Boyd’s challenge is to embrace the Shakespearean scale of the play while celebrating its “Russianness” and emotional volatility – “there’s a particular brand of absurd dark comedy in Russian theatre that we’ve got to get right” – and revealing the many layers of political critique in the play. Pushkin dramatises the bloodstained power struggles of 16th-century Russia, but his account of political intrigue reflects his own period and, says Boyd, feels “astonishingly contemporary”.
“Russian culture is at a fascinating turning point,” he says. “It had its great crisis with the fall of the Berlin Wall, perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It looked like it was going to become a tame puppy of western capitalism. And yet again there has been a resurgence of nationalistic pride, of authoritarian rule.”
Boyd points out that, in fact, Boris Godunov is his first production as former artistic director: Gregory Doran officially succeeded him in September, though Boyd has programmed through to the end of 2013. It is neat that the handover production should be a play about the perils of power. But then, for the past decade, Boyd must have found it hard to escape lessons in leadership in the rehearsal room. Shakespeare was obsessed with rulers – particularly bad ones – and any one who spends 10 years with Shakespeare will certainly come away with a pretty good idea of what not to do in office.
The director laughs and diplomatically points out that one of Shakespeare’s great strengths is his ambiguity. “He refuses to give you editorial clues as to how to behave: you’ve got to work it out for yourself,” he says. “However, people with perfect ideologies tend to be the most imperfect people in his plays. He is a great lover of pluralism and paradox ... I suppose I have tried to be pluralistic in the way that I have led the RSC and I have tried to create a sense of artistic community without a dominating ideology.”
“I think Humphrey of Gloucester in the history plays is an image of a kind of leadership that Shakespeare admires,” says Boyd. “He is decisive, he has great compassion and he will stop in the street and do something that contradicts something he said yesterday, because he just feels for that person. And as the sharks in the court start swimming around Humphrey you know that, when he goes, England’s last hope has gone. Big-hearted, not squeaky clean, pragmatic, compassionate, decisive – he’s the nearest thing.”
‘Boris Godunov’ previews from November 15, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, www.rsc.org.uk, tel: +44 0844 800 1110