For more than two decades, director Michael Boyd and designer Tom Piper have worked together on a series of audacious, award-winning productions. As their staging of Tamburlaine for the Royal Shakespeare Company opens in Stratford-upon-Avon, they tell Tom Wicker the secrets of a long-running creative partnership
Director Michael Boyd and designer Tom Piper adopt a hands-on approach to their work together – sometimes literally. “Letting Michael near a design model can be quite dangerous,” Piper jokes, “because he’ll occasionally break a bit off.” Boyd adds with a wry smile: “Sometimes by accident. I’ll apologise, then go: ‘That looks better.’ ”
“Breaking bits off” sums up Boyd and Piper’s commitment to changing course if an idea isn’t working, sometimes as late as in previews or transfers of productions. “A lot of young designers coming out of design school are obsessed with their design models,” says Piper. Design, he believes, should be part of a wider creative churn. “If it no longer serves the play, ditch it.”
Boyd and Piper are in rehearsals for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s upcoming production of Christopher Marlowe’s bloodily, savagely satirical Tamburlaine, which follows the titular 14th-century warlord as he sweeps through Central Asia. It opens tonight at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Boyd and Piper’s creative partnership started at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in 1991 and has since spanned countless venues as well as Boyd’s time as artistic director of the RSC. They’ve collaborated on more than 30 productions and won numerous awards, including Oliviers for the RSC’s staging of Shakespeare’s Histories in 2006 to 2007.
They met when Boyd was artistic director of Tron and Piper wrote to him. “I thought the Tron was fantastic,” the designer recalls, while his future mother-in-law, a member of the theatre’s board, was relieved that this English person, Piper, “had a Scottish sense of humour.”
Piper’s previous job as an assistant to legendary director Peter Brook might have been one reason Boyd took him seriously. Boyd says the work Piper showed him was “imaginative, thoughtful and vivid – as penance, his first design job was an under-budget panto with impossible scenic designs”.
That was Jack and the Beanstalk, followed in 1992 by Cinderella. “The Tron was a theatre where the income from its bar was more than its grant from the Arts Council,” says Boyd. “It needed a spirit of inventiveness that Tom had in spades.”
Born: 1955, Belfast
Training: University of Edinburgh
• Crow (Tron Theatre, 1990),
• The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, Tron Theatre (1990
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal Shakespeare Company, (1999),
• The Histories, RSC (2005-08)
As producing artistic director:
• The Complete Works Festival, RSC (2005-06),
• Matilda the Musical, RSC (2010-11)
• World Shakespeare Festival, London Olympics (2012)
• Olivier awards for best director (2002), best company performance (2009) and best revival (2009)
Agent: Mel Kenyon at Casarotto Ramsay
What Boyd calls their first ‘grown-up’ play together was Macbeth at the same venue. Piper recalls an answering-machine message from Boyd, in which he talked excitedly about his plans for presenting Duncan as God and Macbeth as a fallen angel. “I was like: ‘Woah,’ ” Piper says. “It was this entire directorial concept in one phone message.”
Boyd characterises the impulse to collaborate with someone like Piper as a sense of working with someone you respect intuitively. “It’s challenging – a genuine dialogue.”
And that dialogue has thrived on blurring the line between director and designer. Boyd has little time for British theatre’s tendency to send the designer away to create in isolation. “The danger is that the designer gets cut out of the heart of any show – the rehearsal room,” he says.
As a result, Boyd comments on Piper’s designs and Piper attends rehearsals. Stage space and the transitions in it are key. Piper doesn’t like the static nature of storyboarding. His designs evolve in tandem with Boyd’s direction of the actors’ movement, “the flow, impact and layering of ideas”.
It’s a demanding way of working. “You might be going a particular route,” says Piper. “Then you’ll have a chat on the way to buy a sandwich and come back and go: ‘Maybe I’ve got it wrong and those guys should be in white’.” But he relishes that agency. He finds it odd when other directors don’t explore how movement and design relate to each other.
In Boyd’s ideal world the set would be left to the last minute. “We wouldn’t finalise the design of a show until the week before tech – which, of course, is impossible,” he acknowledges. “But it’s good to have a sense of where you’re headed.”
‘When Tom’s voice reaches a certain pitch, I know it’s decision time’ – Michael Boyd
Piper characterises his role as a conduit between the rehearsal room and the workshop: “You want, equally, to respect other people’s craft.” Smiling, Boyd adds: “When Tom’s voice reaches a certain pitch, I know it’s decision time.”
Piper recalls a few hair-raising moments. Like Boyd’s midnight phone call about ditching a white floor late into the process for the RSC’s staging of Richard III as part of the Histories. But the pair insists that, while there have been tight corners, they’ve never fallen out in a major way. “And the resolution has always made things better,” says Boyd. The maxim Piper holds on to is: “Hold on tightly and then let go lightly.”
Boyd became artistic director of the RSC in 2003. He was “immediately, intimately, politically and planning-wise involved in the redesign of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, which was a hot potato when I took over”. The long-awaited redevelopment was finally launched in 2007, alongside construction of the temporary Courtyard Theatre.
Piper, who’d previously worked at the RSC, joined as associate designer in 2004. “I said: ‘Can I come and be the voice of design in this building?’ ” he reminds Boyd. “And you subjected me to a very thorough interrogation of what my role was going to be and how I planned to make a difference.” This would include starting a trainee scheme for young designers.
Born: 1964, London
Training: University of Cambridge; Slade School of Art
• Macbeth, Tron (1993)
• The Birthday Party (National Theatre, 1994)
• A Midsummer Night’s Dream (RSC, 1999)
• Red Velvet, Tricycle Theatre (2012)
• Rhinoceros (Edinburgh International Festival, 2017)
• Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, Tower of London (2014)
• Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland for best costume design (2003)
• Olivier award for best set design (2009)
• South Bank Sky Arts award – visual arts (2015)
Agent: Davina Shah at Macnaughton Lord
Before his appointment as RSC artistic director, he and Piper were used to challenging venues, says Boyd. “We’d reshape them, poke holes in them and put platforms over them.” They brought this approach to the RSC, encouraging the organisation to be more flexible. “The principles we’d applied to our work before, we applied to the new auditorium.”
As artistic director, Boyd was in demand from all sides and Piper “was very aware of how, now, we had to book in design time”. He used to be “almost jealous” of actors in rehearsals. “We couldn’t spend half a day in my studio or have lunch and a chat about things. When you left, we had pizza. I was like: ‘Oh, my God, this is amazing.’ ”
That departure was in 2012, followed by Piper’s two years later. They have continued to collaborate since, bringing to bear their additional experience from the RSC of reconfiguring large auditoriums for different plays. In March this year, they converted the Bristol Old Vic stage into an in-the-round space for a revival of The Cherry Orchard.
Tamburlaine marks Boyd’s directorial return to the RSC, though he and Piper worked on a production of Marlowe’s masterpiece in New York in 2014. How will they avoid repeating themselves? The world has changed, Boyd says. “It’s still a comedy, but we now have Tamburlaine-style dictators emerging in powerful courts – Trump, but also ‘strong men’ in Europe.”
Essentially, the Tamburlaine effect has moved mainstream. In 2014, there were visual allusions to groups such as so-called Islamic State. Now, Piper says: “We’re talking about [Tamburlaine’s] son sitting there in a suit.” It’s changing the choreography, the look of the set and appearance of the cast.
Generally, though, after so many years of collaboration, do Boyd and Piper worry about their aesthetic becoming predictable? “I brought to Tom an obsession with ladders,” jokes Boyd, before pointing out that a signature style is different from a cliché. “As long as you’re being rigorous, there’s a potential benefit to returning to an image.”
He and Boyd’s shared history is also good for vigilance, adds Piper. He had recognised props in the RSC store while preparing for Tamburlaine. “You begin to go: ‘Is this an old friend? Would we use it again?’ And – as you said just today – ‘No, that feels old-fashioned. It’s in the past.’ ”
Tamburlaine runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until December 1