Michael Boyd (1955-2023) Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) Artistic Director (2003-2012)

A personal appreciation by Adrian Jackson, Cardboard Citizens Artistic Director (1991-2021)

The former Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Boyd, died on 3rd August 2023, aged only 68. It has taken me a while to get round to this, because I am truly grieving the loss of a man I loved, but I wanted to pay tribute to him publicly and for the supporters of Cardboard Citizens to know how important he was for us.

Michael was a wonderful human being and a very significant theatre maker, who was also a very good friend of Cardboard Citizens.

For biographical detail in a ridiculously short entry, see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Boyd_(theatre_director)

I first met Michael when he had really just taken over at RSC, in 2002. With the help of Arts Council England, I had been plotting a Cardboard Citizens co-production of Pericles, with the great director Clare Venables who was at that time an Associate at the RSC; Clare sadly died of cancer before what was to have been our production made the stage in its full form. I met Michael very soon after he took over and he totally got what we were seeking to do. His support was invaluable.

On the first day of rehearsal, at the first read – I was pretty terrified; had never done anything that size; I was not an RSC person, we were just little old Cardboard Citizens and there were some 40 staff in the room – he made a speech expressing how important this production was to him and to his new vision for the RSC. It was like he said to all the assembled RSC hierarchs: take it seriously; support it; it is of value; not just a funny little community side venture. And they all did take it seriously. And we made something beautiful – actually two things.

First of all a tiny five person story-telling version, which went to places where refugees and asylum seekers were to be found, and after which we engaged in conversation with our audiences and they told us stories back – and then a huge sprawling immersive production spread across a warehouse complex off the Old Kent Road, with a cast of 12 equally drawn from RSC and CCs, plus a large community dance group which was one of the fruits of a collaboration with The Place at the time. It was an extraordinary blend of Shakespeare and testimony, an epic piece which helped put us firmly on the cultural map. Michael’s support for that was invaluable.

In 2005, we co-commissioned and toured a new play, Visible, with RSC support, which introduced us to a lifelong collaborator, the writer Sarah Woods, who went on to write a considerable number of plays for us. Then we did a Timon of Athens for the Complete Works festival in 2006. All these were essentially Cardboard Citizens-led productions with RSC co-production support.

At various times I had a coffee with him (in his ‘other office’ – a patch of park behind the London offices, where he could smoke) or lunch. I was at first, and perhaps always, a little in awe of him. But whenever I got to talk to him, he was pure wisdom, pure interest, genuine interest, his advice always very sparing but wise. Though we were not that far apart in age (I am 67) I thought of him as the father I never had. The twinkle in his eye, the warmth, the wit, the relish. He rarely dispensed notes on my shows to me, though I would willingly have received more – but they were great notes, delivered with a light touch.

After we first met all those years back, I remember Clare Venables asking me if he did ‘the ear thing’, which he had (much to my confusion). The ‘ear thing’ was a slightly unexpected expression of love and trust, whereby Michael gently grabbed the lobes of one’s ears in both hands, and drew one to him in an embrace. It was an incredibly intimate and unique form of contact, and one which was on first experience a little overwhelming. But then you realised it was a vote of trust. So when I told Clare that he had done ‘the ear thing’ she said, ‘then you’re alright,  he likes you.’

A couple of times in his last years at the RSC, we spoke about working together on his own putative production of Pericles at the Roundhouse, which he generously suggested would borrow ideas from ours – most people would have just taken the ideas and never mentioned it. I would so so have loved to work directly with him, I know I would have learnt so much. But that production sadly never happened.

Michael came to our production of Cathy, by Ali Taylor, when we performed it to an audience including Grenfell survivors, as a Forum Theatre piece, outdoors under the roaring Westway above. He loved it. We probably last met in person at the funeral of the great voice coach, Cic Berry (another great supporter of the company) a while back. He was his usual interested, totally humble and witty self, now freed from the burden of artistic directorship (he had totally turned the RSC round, by the way, converting a deficit into a surplus and building two new theatres, as well directing a great Henrys cycle.)

Earlier this year, also free from AD responsibilities, having stepped down from Cardboard Citizens a couple of years back, not knowing he was so ill I reached out to him to ask if he would write a note of recommendation for a production of Lear I was trying to get off the ground in New Zealand, a note for funders. He came straight back and asked how long he had – the answer was only a few days – and sure enough in a day or two he sent back such a beautiful tribute that it blew me away.

Everything we had done with this company, he profoundly understood, in a way that I am not sure anyone else really did. I think he really liked the work, I think he liked the political edge to the company at that time, I think he believed in the activism (he called us ‘Britain’s most achieved community based and activist theatre company’), but more than anything I think he found beauty in the works we made (Pericles was ‘articulate, revelatory and profoundly moving’).

I used his email and I definitely think it helped us eventually go get the funds, and my production is going ahead in 2023. I wish he was there to tell me how to do it.

Adrian Jackson, Cardboard Citizens Founder, October 2023