Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Michael Boyd - Right Now

When a script for a new play called Right Now landed on Michael Boyd's desk, it couldn't help but remind the former boss of the Royal Shakespeare Company of a few things. Here was a play, after all, written by Catherine-Anne Toupin, a Quebecois playwright, which looked at the inner workings of a woman's mind in a way that was both fantastically strange and darkly comic in its execution.

Prior to his time leading the RSC out of a financial mire and into some of the biggest successes in the company's history, Boyd had been based in Glasgow, where he was the artistic director of the Tron Theatre. During his decade there, his standout productions included a stage version of Janice Galloway's novel, The Trick is To Keep Breathing, in which three performers played different aspects of the main character.

Boyd's tenure was also notable for his production of plays by Quebecois writer, Michel Tremblay, in versions transposed to a ribald Scots demotic by translators Martin Bowman and Bill Findlay. These included a seminal production of The Guid Sisters, now regarded as a modern classic. The similarities in both tone and background with Right Now, then, are plain to see.

“It reminds me a wee bit of The Trick is to Keep Breathing,” the now Sir Michael Boyd says, “in that it takes us into someone's head in extremis, and allows us to see what it's like to be pushed emotionally to the limit, and for the audience to be a part of this complete breakdown. It's very strange, deeply disturbing, oddly funny and quite risque, though it';s always fun to do in rehearsals. It's safer laughing at sex in that way. But when I was sent the play, I saw a new Quebecois play, and when I read it I saw a young woman who was in deep distress because she was in psychosis.”

Boyd's production of Right Now will be for the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, where Chris Campbell's translation of the play was presented as a script-in-hand reading in November 2014 as part of the New Writing From Quebec season. This cultural exchange between the Traverse and the Montreal-based Theatre La Licorne was followed by a week of preview performances last May.

Boyd's full production opens next week at the play's co-producers, the Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov Studio, prior to a run at the London-based Bush Theatre, also a co-producer. When Right Now finally arrives at the Traverse in April, it will see the Belfast-born, Edinburgh-schooled director come full circle. It was while studying English Literature at the University of Edinburgh that made his first foray into theatre with the Edinburgh University Drama Society.

In his twenties, Boyd trained as a director in Moscow before becoming a trainee at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. From here he went to Sheffield Crucible as an associate director, where he worked on an early play by classicist provocateur, Howard Barker. Set during a still unreconstructed Labour Party conference, A Passion in Six Days is jokingly referred to by Boyd as “the first and last Howard Barker musical.”

It was his move to take over what had been set up in 1978 by Joe Gerber, Tom Laurie and Tom McGrath as the Glasgow Theatre Club in 1986, however, where Boyd really came into his own. The idea of the Glasgow Theatre Club, which opened at the dilapidated Tron Kirk in 1981, was to be a replacement for the Citizens Theatre's Close space, which had burnt down. It was a spirit that continued, first under Fania Williams from 1984, then with Boyd in charge two years later in its still shabby interior.

“I look back on my time at the Tron with enormous fondness and a lot of pride,” he says today. “It took about five years to build up a head of steam. After that we couldn't go wrong.”

The Tron became a hothouse of rising new talent, with the likes of Alan Cumming, Forbes Masson, Peter Mullan, Siobhan Redmond and composer Craig Armstrong all finding a platform there. As well as The Trick is to Keep Breathing and the Tremblays, Boyd directed a stage version of Ted Hughes' poem, Crow, and Macbeth featuring Iain Glen in the title role.

“Everything we touched while I was at the Tron seemed to work,” Boyd reflects. “It was where I found my voice as a director.”

Boyd joined the RSC as an associate director in 1996, and staged all of Shakespeare's history plays as This England: Histories Cycle. He returned to Glasgow in 1999 to oversee the drama strand of the New Beginnings Festival of Soviet Arts, and in 2003 took over from Adrian Noble as artistic director of the RSC.

Given that he inherited a £2.8 million deficit, both Boyd and the RSC could have crumbled beneath the weight of such a responsibility. As it was, Boyd instigated a year-long festival of Shakespeare's complete works, and reached out to other theatre companies even as the RSC itself programmed a season in London. He also launched a redevelopment of the company's base in Stratford, with a temporary space built to house the History plays prior to its transfer to the Roundhouse.

“I was both unlucky and unlucky there,” says Boyd. “There were these massive expectations about this historical institution, but it was in a terrible state. I was very lucky in terms of the press, who were up for change, so I was able to go, look, there's only one answer, and only one way forward, which is to be bold, and to make big decisions. There were those against it, but they couldn't argue, and I think we did okay.”

Boyd went on to produce the World Shakespeare Festival for the London Olympics 2012, took seven Shakespeare plays to New York and directed Matilda the Musical. More recently, his New York production of Marlowe's Tamburlaine scooped several awards, and he directed his first opera, Monteverdi's ORFEO, with the Royal Opera at The Roundhouse. In the summer, he will direct Eugene Onegin for Garsington Opera at the Wormsley Estate.

Boyd's return to Scottish theatre “feels good, and I hope to repeat it, and do more work in Scotland. I'm allowing myself to do things I've never done before, and I'm absolutely loving it.”

While there have been seismic shifts in Scotland's theatre scene since his days at the Tron, Boyd is careful regarding his prodigal's return.

“It would be wrong for me to make any grand statements on Scottish culture from Kennington Oval,” he says, “but I'm looking forward to immersing myself back in it properly, and there clearly have been changes. Someone like David Greig is a very important figure in this search for a Scottish voice and a surge in confidence. Vicky Featherstone as well made such a good job of the National Theatre of Scotland.”

Given his track record, the NTS could conceivably be a natural home for some of Boyd's future adventures. In the meantime, he's having fun with Right Now.

“I think it's a sort of disturbing, dark, sexy comedy,” he says. “It's written with great discipline, and she's quite a craftswoman, Catherine-Anne. She's an actress, a big TV star, and you can tell she's grown up in the Quebecois theatrical tradition. It's like the variety tradition in Scotland, so it's very much an entertainment, even though it's quite a forensic piece about depression. It asks very probing questions of the audience, but not in a surly way. One thing it's not, it's' not a play about certainty.”

Right Now, Theatre Royal Bath Ustinov Studio, February 18-March 19; Bush Theatre, London, March 23-April 16; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, April 19-May 7.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, February 16th 2016

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