Obituary: Michael Bogdanov
Michael Bogdanov will be remembered as the director against whom the self-appointed morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse launched a venomous tirade in 1980 following his production of Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain at the National Theatre.
Outraged by reports of a scene featuring simulated homosexual rape in the play, Whitehouse (without having seen the production) attempted to prosecute Bogdanov under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act. The case became a cause celebre before collapsing and placed the director at the centre of a debate about theatre’s political and social function in the early years of the Thatcher era.
Ironically, Bogdanov’s next play at the National was his much-revived version for children of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Hiawatha (originally seen at the Young Vic in London) – which Whitehouse also never saw.
An iconoclast who began his career in light entertainment with Ireland’s state broadcaster RTE and the BBC, Bogdanov was a self-styled “maverick” who developed a reputation for clothing the classics in modern dress.
Committed to regional theatres and touring, he also maintained a national profile at the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theatre (where he was associate director from 1980 to 1988), and held posts as artistic director of Leicester’s Phoenix Theatre and the Young Vic Theatre in London. He was also the first non-German to become intendant of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg, Germany’s largest national theatre.
But it was as co-founder, together with actor Michael Pennington, of the English Shakespeare Company in 1986 that he made his biggest impact on British theatre. It began with an ambitious trilogy – Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V – that toured the world. The seven-play The Wars of the Roses followed at the Old Vic in 1989, where it secured an Olivier award for Bogdanov.
Although it folded in 1994 when Arts Council England withdrew funding, the venture was resurrected in 1997 at Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre and Opera House before finally closing in 2000.
Bogdanov’s early and late theatre career was also marked by new companies: the Gas Theatre Company in Dublin (where he read French and German at Trinity College) in 1964 and the Swansea-based Wales Theatre Company in 2003, the repertoire of which extended from Scrooge (with Ron Moody in the title role) and Hamlet to Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds musical.
His rise had been steady, catching attention in 1969 for David Cregan’s A Comedy of the Changing Years – the first production staged at the Royal Court Upstairs in London. Within two years, he was overseeing the world tour of Peter Brook’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and assisting Jean-Louis Barrault on Rabelais with the RSC.
He was associate producer at the Tyneside Theatre Company, Newcastle (1971-73) and artistic director of the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester (1973-77), where he also directed the inaugural production, George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, at the city’s Haymarket Theatre. From 1978 to 1980, he led the Young Vic Theatre.
In 1985 he directed the David Essex musical Mutiny! at the Piccadilly Theatre in London, and later musicals included Guys and Dolls (Theatre Royal, Plymouth, 1991), Hair (Old Vic Theatre, 1993) and West Side Story (Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 2007).
His few forays into opera included Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Donnerstag Aus Licht at the Royal Opera House in London in 1985.
He published a number of books, including Theatre, the Director’s Cue: Thoughts and Reminiscences (2013).
Michael Bogdanov was born Michael Bogdin to Lithuanian-Welsh parents in Neath, South Wales on December 15, 1938, and died on April 16, aged 78.
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