Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The Last Chapter: A Personal Memory

From “Contender” to “Elwyn” via “West Side Story”

Michael Bogdanov , Venues Across Wales , April-19-17
From “Contender” to “Elwyn” via “West Side Story” by Michael Bogdanov The theatre of Michael Bogdanov intersected with two different times in my life. The first was in London and the second in Aberystwyth- the time inbetween was a period where theatre-going took second place to domestic duty. In that first period the name Bogdanov was just one among a generation of directors along with Attenborough, Alfreds, Blakemore, Gaskill, Rickson. I followed dramatists and was barely aware of directors. It was for that reason that I never saw the play that made the news and overshadowed the obituaries. I had seen “the Education of Skinny Spew” and was not overly enthused about Howard Brenton. There was also a personal reason, relating to Northern Ireland, that kept me away. Hence no “Romans in Britain.”

As a North Londoner I never went to the South Bank. However, I did break habit and see some of the productions put on by the English Shakespeare Company. I have gratitude in particular for one. Theatre does not teach anything. But if it has any moral element at all it is in the metaphors it leaves in its wake. The “Henry VI”, part of the series that won the Best Director Olivier in 1989, was a brilliant display of political power rendered impotent. Its last image has stayed in my mind over the years. It was there as an imaginative prefiguration for the balcony scene that was to unfurl in Bucharest on December 21st 1989. It has lodged itself as an imaginative filter that tinges now my perception of the election of this season.

Twenty years ensued before I saw another Michael Bogdanov production. I missed “Amazing Grace” but was there to see, and applaud, Mal Pope's follow-up “Contender.” Two of his productions have particular meaning and memory. My parents had seen “West Side Story” on its first arrival in Britain and the LP was much played in our home. Its production at Aberystwyth was a high point in Alan Hewson's long stewardship of the Arts Centre. It was also a first production with my mother after a severe illness and the last piece of theatre she was to see. It was stunning. Michael Pennington this week gave tribute to his friend and colleague. Bogdanov's gifts for animating a large cast across a large stage, he said, were exceptional. That “West Side Story” had a company of twenty-seven.

He was at Aberystwyth again the following summer with “My Fair Lady”. He was at the helm for two of Jack Llewelyn's homegrown comedies that sold a lot of seats from Colwyn Bay to the New Theatre. In the Year of Dylan he did the Dylathon and a lovely “Child's Christmas in Wales”. The second production that I remember with particular fondness is “A Servant of Two Masters”. This was some years before Bean and Hytner devised their international block-buster. I took a ten year old, a risk at that age. Bogdanov and company put on a rip-roaringly funny show with some cheeky meta-theatre thrown in. Michael Pennington again this week said his friend was comprised of “an extraordinary mixture of scholarship and mischief.”

Pennington spoke with a sense of loss but with a philosophical touch. In his last moment he had fittingly a glass of wine in his hand. The last time I saw Michael Bogdanov was five years ago. He was at a table with Ieuan Rhys and Russell Gomer. I don't dawdle with the professionals of theatre. I stayed long enough to hear his opinions of the latest in theatre- it was the month that Greg Cullen was touring with “Muscle” and Tim Price had written “the Radicalisation of Bradley Manning”. He made some kind comments on the reviews I had been writing. He picked on one of the two words that I value.

His companions that day were not just comrades but working colleagues. The result was “Elwyn” and my review a few days later wound up with “There is warmth and truth to “Elwyn”. The play may have a feel-good ending but sometimes life simply does work out. I liked “Elwyn” for its skill, its distinctiveness, its unpatronising attitude to its characters, its rendering on stage of a little heard, small voice of humanity.”

Michael Bogdanov at that time was seventy-three. I took him to be much younger. He signed his informal biography of last year off with “I’ve notched up nearly 300 productions or revivals on stage, and over 150 programmes on TV and film. That’s a lot of f***ing work."

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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