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‘A quiet unassuming genius’ – former RSC artistic director Michael Boyd dies

THEATRE director Michael Boyd, the former Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director who oversaw the building of the new theatre, has died from cancer.

His career took him from training in Moscow to artistic directorships at the Tron Theatre Glasgow (1985-96) and the RSC, which he joined in 1996 as an associate director.

When he took over as artistic director six years later in July 2002, the RSC had just left the Barbican as its London home, and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (RST) in Stratford was about to be demolished and rebuilt.

The RSC said Michael knew the company needed radical change and more secure financial fortunes, and described his time as a turning point in the company’s history.

In a tribute to Michael, who was 68, a statement from his family said: “To lead the company forward, Michael looked back to Peter Hall’s founding principles in 1961, as well as to his training in Moscow. He set about realising a long-standing artistic ambition to create an ensemble of actors working together over two to three years, with long rehearsal periods that allowed for a deeper understanding of the text, and a rigorous programme of daily voice and movement classes to strengthen the ensembles’ individual and collective artistry.

Michael Boyd. Photo: Mark Williamson
Michael Boyd. Photo: Mark Williamson

“The work was placed front and centre and was openly recognised as art.

“This approach was fundamental to Michael’s artistic beliefs, inspired by his time in Russia.

“Alongside transforming the rehearsal room, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was reimagined, creating a more intimate auditorium with a thrust stage. It brought every seat – even ‘the cheap ones’ [Michael Boyd] much closer to the stage, and significantly altered the relationship between actor and audience.”

As building work began on the new theatre, The Courtyard, constructed on the site of The Other Place, thrived both as a prototype of the new RST as well as a dynamic space in its own right. The eight play Histories Cycle and Matilda The Musical opened there to critical acclaim and sell-out houses.

While running the company and driving the building project, and consolidating their extraordinary creative partnership, Michael and Tom Piper directed all eight history plays with one ensemble over two and a half years.

The statement continued: “Under Michael’s leadership, the company enjoyed consistent artistic success and a busy box office. He recognised that the commercial and international success of Les Miserables, which had been such an integral part of the RSC’s income was waning. With Jeanie O’Hare he began the development of Matilda The Musical, initially commissioning writer Dennis Kelly and then inviting Matthew Warchus and Tim Minchin to complete the team. He championed the musical throughout its development and its success continues to provide financial stability for the company.

“When he arrived at the RSC, Michael had a track record in international work, and he passionately believed that the RSC needed to be an international as well as a national theatre company. The Complete Works Festival and the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival, which reached an estimated 1.5 million people were testament to this agenda. He was equally driven by his belief in the power of theatre, especially Shakespeare, to change young people’s lives. The RSC Stand Up for Shakespeare project, under the stewardship of Jacqui O’Hanlon was of huge importance to him.

“On his shows, along with Tom Piper, he worked consistently with Liz Ranken, John Woolf, Jimmy Jones and Alison Bomber, as well as with producers Denise Wood, Jeremy Adams and Zoe Donegan. Outside the rehearsal room, his main ”partners in crime” were Vikki Heywood, along with Susie Sainsbury, Kate Horton and the late Christopher Bland.

“Michael’s tenure created cultural change both backstage and front of house. He shaped a company that everyone, whether theatre artists, production staff or front of house wanted to be a part of, and he made them feel that they were all an integral part of the company’s success. Over six years as an associate director and ten years as artistic director (2002-2012), his honesty, kindness and tenacity inspired love, loyalty and admiration from those who worked alongside him.”

The statement continued: “His impact on the company was lasting; on his return to the RSC in 2018 to direct a visceral and dynamic Tamburlaine, the stage crew voluntarily agreed to work beyond their shift, but only because it was for him.

“Being artistic director of the RSC is a consuming role that Michael committed to wholeheartedly; at the same time, he was even more committed to us, his family.

“We are in awe of what he achieved as a theatre artist and incredibly grateful to be loved and nurtured by such a wonderful father and husband. We are heartbroken to have lost him so soon.”

Gregory Doran, RSC artistic director emeritus, said: ”Michael Boyd was a deeply generous collaborator, who unfailingly and without hesitation celebrated and nurtured the ‘genius’ (as he would say) of those creative talents he gathered to the company, ensuring that the RSC was a genuine ensemble.

“He promoted the work of the education department, about which he was passionate, applied his rigour to restoring the financial health of the company with an almost puritanical zeal and brilliantly transformed our stages.

“Among the many exceptional productions he directed the crowning glory was without doubt his History Cycle, fostered over many years, and climaxing at the Roundhouse in 2008. I will always be grateful for the support he showed me personally. He was himself, a quiet unassuming genius.”

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