All actors have sat through a difficult rehearsal at some point in their careers, wishing they were elsewhere. Few, however, have had to practise their performance under the watchful eye of a KGB agent. Sir Michael Boyd, the former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, had the unique experience of spending his formative years training to be a director with the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre in Moscow during the premiership of Leonid Brezhnev.
It was the twilight of the Soviet Union, but the atmosphere remained tense and alien for a young actor freshly graduated from Edinburgh University. In Boyd’s own words, he was a “rare bird” in a society where free speech was still far from a reality.
Boyd carries himself with the gravitas of a man who has ruled over many rowdy rehearsal rooms. I found him standing at St Catz’s bar surrounded by a gaggle of student actors vying for his attention, much as they vie each week to be featured in ‘Know Your Thesp’, but I managed to prise him away from a particularly enthusiastic fresher to answer my questions. The most striking aspect of his career path has to be his early years in Moscow, and our conversation centred around this. There was a fair amount of cultural exchange between the West and the USSR in music and dance in the 1980s, but Boyd said that “inviting artists who worked with words was tricky”.
The regime sought to control the arts, most obviously through the continual presence of a KGB agent who attended all of Boyd’s rehearsals and was treated with “complete contempt” by those he sought to intimidate. More subtly, the authorities attempted to censor the output of the theatre, but Boyd was quick to assert that “there was a very significant fightback” against this within the theatrical community. Despite this, he acknowledged that the real censorship took place “between the fingertips and the type-writers”.
At a time when Brezhnev had fallen ill,a friend of Boyd’s hoped to put on a production of King Lear. The themes of succession which run through Shakespeare’s great tragedy were also playing on the minds of the Russian authorities, and a moratorium was placed on any production of Lear — “unless he agreed to cast, as King Lear, the general secretary of the Moscow cadre of the Communist Party in the Actors Union.”
The production went ahead, and, in Boyd’s succinct phrasing, it was a “pile of shit”. The advice of Shakespeare’s Albany that we must “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say” clearly held little weight for the Communist censors.
Returning to the UK from Moscow was a “relief” for the young Boyd. “I wasn’t naiÌˆve about what it was like over there; I was still delighted to come home to greengrocers with oranges in them”. But he doesn’t paint the UK theatre as the polar opposite to the USSR: just as the Soviet authorities sat in on the rehearsals of the 80s, capitalists controlled which shows were put on in London’s West End. “Market forces can be quite constricting. They defined what we could do and whether it would make any money or not.”
Boyd’s experience of censorship under Brezhnev radicalised him and opened his eyes to the power of capitalism in the West. As jazz plays and students chatter around us in the St Catz bar, I ask him whether theatre can be hard-hitting in an atmosphere as placid as Oxford. “There are plenty of fights to fight,” he replies, “and there is no shortage of constraints on our freedoms”.