He looks like an absent-minded watchmaker, or a homeless chess champion, or a stray physics genius trying to find his way to the Nobel Prize ceremony. He’s in his early sixties, tall and stooping, a bit thin on top, wearing a greatcoat and a crumpled polo-neck jumper. A blur of whiskers obscures the line of his jaw. He has a bulbous, Larkinesque skull and battleship-grey teeth; and if you wanted to cast someone as Spooner, the literary vagrant in Pinter’s No Man’s Land, you’d struggle to find a closer match. This is Michael Boyd, former director of the RSC, who was knighted in 2012 for services to drama. We meet in a dressing-room in a west London studio where he’s rehearsing the Cherry Orchard for Bristol Old Vic.
He has deep roots in the Russian theatre. After graduating in the 1970s, he studied directing at the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre in Moscow before taking up a post as assistant director at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. Yet he has never before directed Chekhov. He dislikes seeing the plays done in a ‘floppy-hatted English style, all atmosphere, not properly rooted in place’. During his earlier career, when he ran the Tron Theatre, in Glasgow, he found ‘there was no need to programme Chekhov, I was happy to let others do it.’ He rates the play as Chekhov’s finest and he likens it to Lear. ‘Each author puts humanity to the most extreme test. Under the most extreme sandblaster that he can produce, he winnows humanity to the bone. The poetry of the writing is spare and simple — in the same way that Picasso gets to the root of humanity and, with a very few gestures, captures what it’s like to live in a human skeleton with a beating heart and living muscles.’
Unsurprisingly, he was given an open brief by Tom Morris who runs Bristol Old Vic.