“Shakespeare was boring; Shakespeare was dead,” Michael Bogdanov remembered on his website. But then he caught Richard Burton’s Hamlet at the Old Vic in London in 1954. “Shakespeare was alive… with “an electrifying Welsh twang.” The Welsh teenager went on to direct for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) but is perhaps best known for the obscenity trial based on a modern playwright. On 16 April 2017, while on vacation in Greece, Welsh director Michael Bogdanov died of a heart attack at 78.
He was never boring and he had his own Welsh twang. Born in Neath, his mother’s home town, to Francis Benzion Bogdin and Rhoda Rees on 15 December 1938, Michael grew up in London and traveled widely, working and learning in Paris, Dublin, and Hamburg, with stops in Andrésy (France), Senny- bridge (Wales), and Stratford (England), where in 1969 he started at the RSC. He had run a pub in Wales but “the muscular ache of beer-barrel reality was superseded by the spiritual ache for make-believe.”
His original name was from his Jewish father’s Ukrainian family. He changed it professionally to Bogdanov – “the surname of a Polish cousin ten times removed” – but was called “Bodger” by his friends.
He became a theatre, film, and opera director of international repute, directing for the BBC and the RSC, the Royal National, on Broadway and in the West End, in Minneapolis, Germany, and Australia. Besides Shakespeare, he staged Moliére, Goethe, Chekhov, Gogol, Beckett, and Dylan Thomas. In 1986 he co-founded the English Shakespeare Company (ESC) and in 2003 the Wales Theatre Company (WTC). He kept coming back to Wales, where he said, “I laugh here like I never laugh anywhere else in the world.”
The infamous court case came after Bogdanov directed Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain at the National in 1980. A morality campaigner sued the director under the Sexual Offences Act for the simulated rape of a druid in 54 BC, a metaphor for a later colonial invasion – the British in Ireland. When the defense attorney caught the prime witness mistaking a thumb for a lower body part, the prosecution suddenly withdrew. The theatre is illusion, but, as Bogdanov noted, it “still has the power to shock.”
Directing Jonathan Pryce as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew for the RSC won him an Olivier Award in 1979. His condensed version of Shakespeare’s histories, from Richard II through the Henrys to Richard III, moved the plays to more modern times with “anachronisms,” and directed The Wars of the Rose in 1987 for the ESC. Total viewing time took 23 hours. He won an Olivier Award for that, too.
In his 2003book Shakespeare: The Director’s Cut, Bogdanov asks his readers to look at the plays like “a detective story…ignoring received opinion…look for those hidden moments…that tell the real story. Is this the way to open up Shakespeare for a new generation of unengaged kids?” Challenging the Welsh to embrace the plays as their own, he staged A Bilingual Hamlet, translated by Gareth Miles, for the WTC in 2005. He followed up with Theatre, The Director’s Cue: Thoughts and Reminiscences in 2013.
Bogadanov was rarely satisfied with his Shakespeare and complained, “The trouble is I never get it more than half right. The trouble is it’s never the same half.” In 2011 his lecture entitled “Gwilym ap Shakes-peare,” saw the playwright’s view as positive humanism, not as negative stereotypes, as Y Bardd yr Afon did have Welsh roots – possibly. The WTC toured an adaptation of Bogdanov’s BBC Wales documentary, The Welsh in Shakespeare, to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April 2016.
Dylan Thomas was another Bogdanov favorite. In Swansea for the centennial of Dylan’s birth, the WTC produced a 36-hour marathon reading of the poet’s complete works in 2014. And as a Patron of the Dylan Thomas Prize, Bogdanov was due to attend the May 10 award ceremony. Not now.
But he left behind a question. “So what is a director? A believer in the power of theatre in whatever form, and wherever it is performed, to change the world. And many more things. It’s a bastard of a profession.”