Michael Bogdanov obituary

Theatre director and founder of the English Shakespeare Company whose 1980 production of The Romans in Britain led to an obscenity trial

There was nothing timid or compromised about the work of the theatre director Michael Bogdanov, who has died aged 78. In tandem with the actor Michael Pennington, he founded and ran the English Shakespeare Company for 12 years from 1986, starting with the history plays and racing through the canon on tours of Britain, mainland Europe and the US, with stop-offs in London at the Old Vic.

Although he directed at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and was for eight years from 1980 an associate director of the National Theatre under Peter Hall, he set out his stall against what he considered an Oxbridge conspiracy to squeeze the life out of Shakespeare and the classics in productions of anaemic conformity to the critics’ expectations. He was an unreconstructed socialist, a cultural iconoclast and a man of enormous warmth, energy and passion.

He worked as Peter Brook’s assistant on the landmark 1970 RSC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and that was as good as it got, he felt: “In the theatre, the Living Theatre were a revelation, Peter Brook a confirmation, Jan Kott [the Polish critic who influenced Brook] a consummation, English critics an abomination.” He was a ferocious polemical writer and, in a book of thoughts and reminiscences, The Director’s Cue (2013), he launched a scathing and hilarious attack on one critic in particular, without naming him or her; everyone had their preferred candidate for the abuse and several proudly claimed the soiled badge of dishonour for themselves.

A scene from Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain directed by Michael Bogdanov at the National Theatre.
A scene from Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain directed by Michael Bogdanov at the National Theatre. Photograph: Graham Wiltshire/Getty Images

For Bogdanov, affectionately known as “Bodger”, went out of his way to be provocative and the slew of bad reviews he regularly received proved that he was successful in at least that campaign. He became a more nationally known figure in 1980 when his production of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain at the National attracted a private prosecution from Mary Whitehouse, the clean-up-TV campaigner. Brenton had written a rather beautiful scene, carefully and unambiguously staged by Bogdanov, in which three naked druids playing football with a pig’s bladder were set upon by Roman soldiers; two were killed, the third subjected to an attempted rape.

Whitehouse had not seen the play, and her prosecution, brought under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956, designed to stop soliciting and sex acts in public places, collapsed at the Old Bailey when the defence demonstrated how the on-stage “buggery” was a simulated mime with an actor’s thumb standing in for his penis. Bogdanov, who received the unequivocal support of Hall, nonetheless described his time in the dock as a Kafkaesque nightmare and this whole period – lasting 18 months – one of great stress and discomfort for his family.

He was born in Neath, south Wales, and raised in Ruislip, west London, the elder son of Francis Bogdin, a librarian of Lithuanian descent, who was a dead sea scrolls scholar, and his Welsh wife, Rhoda (nee Rees). Michael was educated at the John Lyon school, Harrow, and Trinity College Dublin, with spells at the Sorbonne in Paris, and in Munich.

He stayed in Dublin for 11 years, working in theatre and as a producer and director with RTÉ, before his spell with Brook and then the first of his associate artistic directorships, with the Tyneside theatre company in Newcastle (1971-73); I recall a lively Faust influenced by the new off-Broadway physical theatre of the time. From 1973 to 1977 he ran the Phoenix theatre in Leicester and then from 1978 to 1980 the Young Vic in London, where he continued to produce work that was lively, sometimes contentious, and always lustily acted.

Two of his best productions, early on at the RSC, were The Taming of the Shrew in 1978, in which Jonathan Pryce as Petruchio literally destroyed the set in the Christopher Sly prologue, and a powerful, poetic version of Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman, with Pennington in the lead, in 1980. At the National, he set about re-booting notions of epic theatre in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the late 1970s, and did fine, Brechtian productions – skeletal designs, earthy no-frills acting, stark light – of Calderón’s The Mayor of Zalamea, Molière’s The Hypochondriac and Thomas Kyd’s crucially important but rarely seen The Spanish Tragedy.

He was the National’s go-to guy for risk-taking, difficult classics: in 1983 he made a pretty good job of Alfred de Musset’s notorious Lorenzaccio and followed with an ambitious, Russian-style staging of Tolstoy’s Rider – The Story of a Horse, in which he again prefaced his association with Pennington in the bridled leading role.

There have been several Shakespearean history play cycles since Hall and John Barton’s Wars of the Roses in 1964, and Bogdanov and Pennington’s was by no means the least of them. Their impetus in founding the English Shakespeare Company came from a feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction at both the RSC and the National. The logistical stretch of their project, its immense touring schedule, supported by the Arts Council and the Allied Irish Bank, with London offices above Sadler’s Wells and then in Bedford Square, was endemic to its strengths and flavour.

They launched the ESC with the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V in 1986-87. There was a superb moment in Henry V when the rabble-rousing of the English soldiers at Southampton docks, departing like football hooligans, cross-faded to the cool contempt of the French court and the effete and snooty king’s opening line: “Thus comes the English with full power upon us …”

Michael Bogdanov leaving court in 1982. He described his time in the dock as a Kafkaesque nightmare.
Michael Bogdanov leaving court in 1982. He described his time in the dock as a Kafkaesque nightmare. Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

After the seven-play Wars of the Roses in 1989, Bogdanov won the Olivier best director award and went on, over the next few years, to produce Coriolanus, The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, The Tempest, Beowulf, As You Like It and Antony and Cleopatra. Leading actors besides Pennington included John Woodvine, Lynn Farleigh, Tony Haygarth and Don Warrington. He combined this schedule with a three-year stint as Intendant (director) of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, succeeding Peter Zadek in 1989 and improving a stuttering reputation at one of Germany’s leading houses, beset by severe cuts in funding, with not only Shakespeare, but Kleist’s Amphitryon, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, Ibsen’s Pillars of Society, Osborne’s The Entertainer and Schiller’s Mary Stuart.

Bogdanov was nothing if not an internationalist, and an erudite one, too, though it is also fair to say that he probably never received his full due in his lifetime, and was regarded with suspicion by the Oxbridge “mafia” he affected to despise. He related more fully to the rough-and-tumble of a director such as Joan Littlewood, or Frank Dunlop, his predecessor at the Young Vic, but the support he received from Pennington and Brenton – whose translation of the two parts of Faust he directed to almost unanimous (for once) critical acclaim at the RSC in 1995 – meant a lot to him, and his standing in the profession.

Pennington rated him with the great Tyrone Guthrie as a moderniser and galvanic physical director, and you can see his imprint everywhere today in, for instance, mixed period costumes and both guns and swords in Shakespeare. The director Dominic Dromgoole dubbed the ESC “the rock and roll company of the time”.

Bogdanov always kept a home in Wales and from 1969 ran a pub, the Shoemaker’s Arms, in Pentre Bach in the Brecon Beacons. In 2003 he formed the Wales Theatre Company, producing in Swansea and Cardiff, and over the next decade produced and directed a string of new musicals, a Dylan Thomas festival, and numerous television films and programmes. But his attempts to establish a Welsh National Theatre were thwarted first by his old RSC colleague Terry Hands’s successful tenure at the Theatr Clwyd in Mold and then by the formation in 2009 of the National Theatre Wales by a younger collective without his participation.

Bogdanov was a stranger to the West End, but he had a reasonably popular (though not critical) success with a Mutiny on the Bounty musical – Mutiny! (1985) – by Richard Crane and David Essex, which ran for well over a year at the Piccadilly. He directed two operatic works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Donnerstag aus Licht at Covent Garden in 1985, and the world premiere of Montag at La Scala, Milan, in 1988.

He is survived by his second wife, Ulrike Engelbrecht, whom he married in 2000, and their children, Pia and Cai, and by three children, Jethro, Ffion and Malachi, from his first marriage, to Patsy Ann Warwick, which ended in divorce. His younger brother, Francis, predeceased him.

• Michael Bogdanov, theatre director, born 15 December 1938; died 16 April 2017


Michael Coveney

The GuardianTramp

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