Obituary: Michael Bogdanov, provocative director who co-founded the English Shakespeare Company

Anthony Hayward
British director Michael Bogdanov: PA

Idiosyncratic and provocative, Michael Bogdanov, who has died aged 79, brought a modern approach to the Bard’s work, most notably as co-founder (with actor Michael Pennington) of the English Shakespeare Company in 1986. This “rock and roll” group of actors, as another director described it, was intended to be the audacious flipside to the establishment National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Companies, presenting contemporary, populist performances.

Touring was important to Bogdanov, who said: “Basically, my theatre – when I am working with Shakespeare – is designed for people who have never been to the theatre before.”

The ESC’s inaugural production, The Henrys, combined Henry IV, Parts I & II and Henry V in a marathon nine-hour performance at the Old Vic Theatre and on a European tour (1986 to 1987). The work invited controversy for its costumes – ranging from medieval chail to 20th century punk – and Bodganov’s view that the plays represented “history unlearnt” in the wake of Britain’s Falklands expedition. Critics were divided – but overwhelmingly applauded John Woodvine’s portrayal of Falstaff, which won the actor an Olivier Award.

However, the theatrical establishment was firmly on Bogdanov’s side when this trilogy was expanded into the seven-play War of the Roses cycle for a world tour (1987 to 1989) and he received the 1990 Olivier Best Director honour.

His 12-year tenure as the joint artistic director of the ESC (1986 to 1998) overlapped with his eight years as the associate director of the National Theatre under Peter Hall (1980 to 1988).

Boganov was prosecuted for a scene in 'The Romans In Britain' (Getty)

The biggest headlines followed his production of Howard Brenton’s play The Romans in Britain (1980). The metaphor this time was the British army in Northern Ireland, but morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse was more concerned with a scene of attempted male rape. (In fact, an actor committed the simulated act using his thumb.) Despite not having seen the play herself Whitehouse took out a private prosecution, accusing Bogdanov of “procuring an act of gross indecency” under the 1956 Sexual Offences Act. In the event, the 1982 Old Bailey trial collapsed after three days.

​Bogdanov was born in London, the son of Francis, a librarian of Lithuanian descent, and Rhoda (née Rees) Bogdin. He later changed his surname to that of a distant Polish cousin because his own was so frequently misspelled.

He attended the John Lyon School, Harrow, before studying French and German at Trinity College, Dublin. He worked at several of the city’s theatres, then went on to produce and direct programmes for RTE, the Irish TV network.

After moving to England, Bogdanov worked as an assistant to Peter Brook for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “metaphorical” production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Featuring circus trapezes, stilts and spinning plates, it was performed in Stratford-upon-Avon (1970) and at the Aldwych Theatre (1971) before a world tour (1972 to 1973). Bogdanov then served as artistic director at Leicester’s Phoenix Theatre from 1973 to 1977.

He went on to win the Society of West End Theatres’ Director of the Year Award for his RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew and was artistic director of the Young Vic Theatre (1978 to 1979).

Bogdanov arriving at court to answer a summons issued by Mary Whitehouse (Getty)

Years later in a completely different vein he directed the West End musical Mutiny! at the Piccadilly Theatre (1985 to 1987), which starred pop star David Essex, and a revival of Hair at the Old Vic (1995).

Also embracing opera, Bogdanov presented two works by Karlheinz Stockhausen: Donnerstag aus Licht at the Royal Opera House (1985), and the world premiere of Montag aus Licht at La Scala, Milan (1988). He had success running the Deutsches Schauspielhaus, in Hamburg (1989 to 1991), and latterly formed the Wales Theatre Company in his mother’s homeland in 2003.

Michael Bogdin (Michael Bogdanov), director: born London, 15 December 1938; married 1966 Patsy Ann Warwick (marriage dissolved 1998; two sons, one daughter), 2000 Ulrike Engelbrecht (one son, one daughter); died Paros, Greece, 16 April 2017.

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