Laurence Boswell has a rich, poetic, European sensibility. Unlike any of his contemporaries, his is a warm, Mediterranean, Catholic aesthetic in a nation of puritans. He went to Manchester University at the end of the 1970's, where he studied drama with comic motor-mouth Ben Elton, whose sensational play (and novel) about screen violence, Popcorn , Laurence directed in Nottingham and is revising in the West End immediately upon his return from America in February. As a student, Laurence was the darling of the National Student Drama Festival, where he won the RSC Buzz Goodbody Award for a production of Dog in a Manger . This was the first in an important body of work which saw him introduce the Spanish Golden Age to Britain, both as director and expert translator, which, after a particularly impressive Gate Theatre season, won the prestigious Laurence Olivier Award.
It was as an associate and then artistic director of London's Gate Theatre that Lawrence overwhelmed the critics: "Lawrence Boswell;s productions at the Gate are one of the things that make living in London worthwhile," exclaimed Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times . Such reviews, reproduced in London Theatre Record , compelled Michael Kahn to invite Laurence to Washington.
Lawrence and I met recently in Lifebait, a chic fish restaurant, opposite the dynamic Young Vic theatre on The Cut in Waterloo, where Lawrence was previewing his new version of Beauty and the Beast ( lit by the affable and intensely theatrical lighting designer, Adam Silverman, with whom he is collaborating again in Washington. The tenacious director might have been excused for being preoccupied with his current openings, but his eyes sparkled as he talked about his imminent departure for Washington.
When I was staying in Nottingham while rehearsing Popcorn he began, my landlady insisted that I meet a clairvoyant who was also staying in her house. Everything she said was amazing. 'I can see you're going to America'. I said: 'Yes'. 'You're going to enjoy that very much. It's going to be like coming home.' I said: 'Well I've never been! She said: 'No, you have been before.' I interpret that as doing Shakespeare again because Shakespeare was my first inspiration.
On leaving Manchester, Laurence was snapped up by the Royal Shakespeare Company where, as an assistant director, he sat at the shoulders of John Caird, Barry Kyle, Trevor Nunn, and Terry Hands. "There were many attitudes to Shakespeare at the RSC, but there was a strong faction of the younger directors who were politically re-examining the plays. The Shakespeare plays do have political satire, political anger; and they also have psychological anger. But it's the spiritual and mythical power that is most absent in other writers work that appeals most to me."
Lawrence also assisted the current artistic director of the RSC, Adrian Noble, for whom Lawrence recently directed an artist a production of Calderon's The Painter of Dishonour ../lawrence remembers fondly one of the most mundane things Noble has ever said: "There was a very learned discussion which I attended, which had John Barton, Cicely Berry, Peter Hall, and Adrian talking about verse-speaking -- some would say the finest authorities on Shakespearean verse-speaking in the world. Adrian piped up and said that he thought the secret of speaking verse was to speak it in a way that made the audience listen to it! That was absolutely fantastic! There was everyone else coming up with these wonderful theories, but there aren't any theories. If the audience listens, you are doing it right!"
Although Lawrence comes to As You Like It with no theories at all, he does have some very strong feelings about it." Whenever I come to a play as rich and complicated as a Shakespeare play, I like to have some broad hunches and then use the rehearsal period to explore and focus. I try to avoid the cut and dried ideas until later.
"I'm interested in the notion of power in the play. It is interesting to be putting on this play about power in Washington. In the first act, the whole of the Society within which Rosalind lives is politically oppressive. Her father has been excluded; Celia's father is a dictatorial ruler. It's a society full of injustice: Orlando feels unjustly treated by his older brother; Adam, the old servant, isn't treated with the respect due to his service. It's a world that's against itself, like Vichy France, or Ceausescu's dominance of Rumania. The idea of falling in love, and the value of personal relationships within clearly unjust and oppressive societies, feels very interesting.
"When you get into the forest, what underpins the joy of the comedy –because it is a hugely joyous celebration of the eccentricities of love, the embarrassing things about falling in love –Rosalind and Orlando are, I think, negotiating power. In that world, marriage would be an oppressive frame for Rosalind to live her life within. She seems to be testing the boundaries of her power within a relationship. In the fiction that she creates of being the woman pretending to be the man pretending to be the woman (Rosalind's disguise within hew disguise), the woman she creates is a woman she says will be a harridan, a monster, who'll demand rights, be unfaithful, and shout. She's related to a lot of Shakespeare's very strong heroines: Kate in The Taming of the Shrew , Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing . They're women who want to test their power, test the boundaries of what it means to be a woman in marriage before they'll agree to it. Rosalind fears she's got to lose a certain amount of power to go into a relationship with a man.
"So political power and the intricacies of interpersonal relationships are what fascinate me."
"I also said to the set and costume designer Angela Davies: 'Simple first idea: the world of Act I is minimalist hell,' the current trend of vicious, beautiful/insane/anal with a purity – the architect John Pawson and his book Minimum. It's a civilization that's gone so fat that it's verging on insanity, to go that far away from nature and mess, as the minimalists do. Then what I always want to do in that world, and Rosalind and Orlando and Shakespeare seem to want to do, is throw mud. Act II is Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy, who use stone and mud and earth and fire. It's bloody, earthy, elemental. That's what nature is: primitive energies; not lovely trees, not pastoral.
"So, it's not abstract courtly. It's not going to be period, it's going to be kind of modern."
Laurence Boswell's directing os some of the most powerfully imagistic, passionately theatrical work in Britain. Whether running theatre companies or inspiring performers in the rehearsal room, his blend of sensitivity and bullish confrontation combine to make some of the most stimulating and visceral theatre. His Washington As You Like It promises to be a spiritual homecoming. He'll feel like a new boy back in town. Simon Reade
Simon Reade is a critic and dramaturg working for BBC Television Drama and writing for the Financial Times and London's Time Out. From 1990-1993 he was Literary Manager at the Gate Theatre, London. He and Laurence Boswell are developing a television version of Lope de Vega's Madness in Valencia for production this year.