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Laurence Boswell

Published April 17, 2008

For some of us, life is hectic. As we are constantly told, everyone is working longer hours, trying to fit too much into their day. The pace of life is constantly increasing. RSC Associate Director Laurence Boswell is a case in point. In the space of just one week, he closed Beauty And The Beast in Stratford, began rehearsing Hecuba for its run at the Albery and continued to nurture the Spanish Golden Age season at the Playhouse. Matthew Amer stole a few minutes of his time for a chat…

The Jerwood Space, just a short but chilly walk from the Young Vic, is a hive of activity on a weekday lunchtime. The restaurant for the rehearsal rooms is crammed with artistic murmurage, turning the air into a viscous mass of theatrical chat that needs to be clambered through, much like swimming in jelly. In one corner Kwame Kwei-Armah chats quietly over his lunch, in another Shaun Parkes (who starred in Kwei-Armah’s Elmina’s Kitchen) is slightly more extravagant with his gestures. In the far corner of the room Laurence Boswell, dressed entirely in black but with a jolly demeanour, discusses his new production of Hecuba over a bowl of soup.

Boswell is at the forefront of the RSC’s current four pronged attack on the West End. Although he doesn’t have a hand in their productions of Tynan (Arts) or the Soho contingent of Midwinter and Poor Beck, he is directing Hecuba (Albery) and is the artistic director behind the Spanish Golden Age season currently playing at the Playhouse.

"She’s an incredible character; a Mexican nun writing a racy sex farce"

The season of plays, all written at Spanish drama’s peak between 1500 and 1700, was staged at the Swan between April and October last year, running in rep for 6 months. The season’s trip down the M1 has provided the ensemble with a brand new challenge for 2005. “Stratford audiences are generally made up of people who are loyal to the Swan, are great fans of the RSC and have a relationship with the RSC. We’re playing at home when we play at the Swan. Playing at the Playhouse is much more like playing away; we are at Old Trafford playing Man Utd. We are out in the market place earning a living. The cold, hard wind of competition is blowing at us and I think that is very helpful.”

Three of the five plays originally staged at Stratford have made the journey south: The Dog In The Manger by Lope De Vega, Pedro, The Great Pretender by Miguel Cervantes, and House Of Desires by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, a writer Boswell enthuses about: “she’s such an exotic, incredible character; a Mexican nun writing a racy sex farce which is very steamy.”

The process that found these three plays taking up residence near Charing Cross has been quite a long affair. Having engaged three academics – Jack Sage, Catherine Boyle and Jonathan Thacker – 100 different pieces of the era were discussed, before 30 literal translations were commissioned. Those 30 were placed under intense scrutiny by Boswell, RSC Artistic Director Michael Boyd and dramaturg Paul Sirett. They were deconstructed, reconstructed, enjoyed and abused before being given a rating out of five. Having reduced the field to ten using this ground-breaking five star method, Boswell’s chosen directors chose the plays they wished to direct. “They all chose plays that reflect their obsessions as directors, and that is how it should be.” Boswell chose Lope De Vega’s The Dog In The Manger: “Quite simply, I think it’s Lope’s finest comedy.”

This is not the first time that Boswell has directed Lope’s Dog. While still a stripling, earning his directorial stripes at university, he had the pleasure of directing the play for the first time. Although that production won him an award for his directing, Boswell still hopes this production of The Dog will be an improvement. “I hope after 25 years of practicing directing, it’s better. I hope it’s tougher, darker, the relationships are deeper, the sense of character is more complex and it’s staged and acted with more dexterity. If it was worse I’d have to slit my throat and retire!”

"If it was worse I’d have to slit my throat and retire!"

Having originally brought him to the attention of the theatrical world, the Spanish Golden Age worked its wonders again when, in the early 90s, Boswell was Artistic Director at the Gate theatre. Having staged seven Golden Age plays over the course of two years, he won an Olivier Award for special achievement. “To be nominated for an Olivier was amazing, and to win one… To give it to a room above a pub was a very bold step.”
Boswell felt at the time that, as Willy Wonka and his Oompa Loompas have taught generations, you certainly can have too much of a good thing, “it was like being in the sweet shop and eating all the sweets. I thought ‘I’ll never touch chocolate again.’” Like a rushed New Year’s resolution, that promise did not last as long as Boswell thought. After seven years the thought of ‘chocolate’ got him salivating again. “There’s a sensuality and a passion in the plays that connects with my taste and my temperament. They’re very volatile, very emotional, very Mediterranean. I identify with that, understand it and relish it.” Boswell also thrives on the virginity of the pieces. “People don’t know these plays, so it’s very exciting to invent ways of staging them; it’s very exciting for the actors to create the role for the first time. There’s a real pioneering, first-through-the-door, experimental, new territory kind of feel.”

Those among us, and I count myself part of this category, who do not know much about the tradition of the Spanish Golden Age, may be interested to know that by 1700, 30,000 plays had been written, the quality of which is often compared to Shakespeare and his contemporaries. A fine tradition indeed. The ‘unknown’ nature of the season, though, however rich the tradition, can be a hindrance to people unsure about visiting the theatre. “They imagine [the plays] might be academic or difficult. The thing is, they are rip-roaring, crowd-pleasing popular drama. What I try to say to people about The Dog In The Manger is: don’t think ‘Oh, weird, high- brow bollocks.’ It’s just like Closer, with laughs. It’s about falling in love with someone you shouldn’t fall in love with.”

As Boswell’s involvement in the Spanish Golden Age season lessens, his involvement with Hecuba increases. Euripides’ tale of the imprisoned Queen of Troy was originally scheduled for a Stratford opening before its London season. But, due to unforeseen illness to Vanessa Redgrave, who is currently recovering from a kidney operation, it will instead go straight into its London run. Instead of feeling tired or run-down – “Exhaustion is the enemy” – Boswell is positively looking forward to staging Hecuba. “Greek drama involves song and dance and poetry, so it challenges you on all the creative levels that are available to a director. Greek tragedy has a chorus and that, to me, is the single most exciting thing you can direct. I think with [Vanessa] in the middle and the chorus backing her up, it is going to be a very powerful show.”

"It’s just like Closer, with laughs."

Although he is currently directing classics from a bygone era of drama, it was not the allure and romance of this side of theatre that initially hooked the young Laurence Boswell and started him on the road to directorial glory. For that we have to thank a certain outrageously-coiffured, buck-toothed tickle-stick wielding entertainer. “Ken Dodd, at the Coventry Hippodrome, said that he was going to squirt all the children in the gods with Oxtail soup and I believed him. I was wearing a new suit, so I hid under my seat for the rest of the show. I was five. It just grabbed me; the power of language, the power of metaphor, the power of imagination.”

From there, Boswell graduated to the stage himself, making his debut in front of the school at the age of ten. Not a Romeo for him at that age, nor a Hamlet. Not even a ‘Joseph in the Nativity’. No, Boswell played a ventriloquist’s dummy. “I told lots of appalling jokes like ‘Where do you take a sick horse? To the horse-pital’ and ‘What do you give a sick parrot? Oinkment!’ … No, that’s a pig!”

As Boswell has progressed from hiding in auditoriums – though as a director, some may claim he still does that – to starring on stage, to creating shows, none of his passion for live theatre has waned. “It’s the richest and most complex way for us to share stories. If we’re all sitting at home in our front room watching DVDs, then society and community loses something. Theatre is a live and communal event, and those two things, live-ness and communality, are two things we need now, otherwise we’ll disappear into an atomised universe of lonely people watching screens.”

As if juggling a number of directing jobs at the same time was not enough for any one man to deal with, Boswell has been spreading himself around other projects too. Recently he met with other RSC head honchos to discuss the work for 2006 and 2007. Without raising even an eyebrow, he casually mentions that they intend to stage the complete works of Shakespeare with the help of some visiting companies – “Michael [Boyd] calls it a big Shakespearean knees up; a global celebration of Shakespeare. It’s the year before we start the refurbishment, so it’s a good way to say goodbye to the old theatre and say hello to the new one.”

Also in the offing is a British independent film to be directed by Boswell, setting a Cyrano de Bergerac story in a sixth form, which will hopefully begin filming this summer. He is also planning to increase the time he spends on the writing side of his career, a project that includes finding time to finish his musical version of The Tinderbox. “It’s probably, I think, technically the most difficult thing to write of anything. Writing a play, I think, is much more difficult that writing a film. And writing a musical is more difficult even than writing a play, because you’ve got to combine all these elements. I’m desperate to finish The Tinderbox; I just need a bit of time when I’m not directing four shows for the RSC.”

"I’m a kind of agent provocateur, a bit of a maverick."

One project not on Boswell’s agenda though, is to take up an artistic directorship. Having performed this role at the Gate, Boswell has frolicked in directorial pastures on both sides of the fence, and the life of a jobbing director certainly has the greener grass for him. “I think I’m someone who works well on the outside, on the edge of organisations. I’m a kind of agent provocateur, a bit of a maverick. I know myself well enough now to know that I’m at my best when challenging the establishment and provoking the bosses.” As if to prove his point, he poses one last question to himself: “How do you manage to be so charming and marvellous and brilliant on such poor wages? I’d say it’s just a gift from God.”

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