The Decorated Director Makes his D.C. Debut with Shakespeare’s Comedy of Desire, Passion and Gender, As You Like It
By Drew Lichtenberg, Literay Associate and Resident Dramaturg at STC, from ASIDES.
One of the subtle things you notice about Michael Attenborough after spending a week in rehearsal with him is his shoes. He owns nine pairs of vintage Converse All-Stars, each a different color. He has brought four of them with him on the trip from his home in London to Washington, D.C.—brown, green, grey and blue. Each day, he shows up to rehearsal decked out in one color or another. On day one, forest green trousers, a pistachio t-shirt, and, of course, green shoes. On day two, a sweater of chestnut, brown khaki pants, and a brown pair of what he calls his “trusty ol’ cons.” On some days, the outfit seems to function like a mood ring. When he turns up one rainy day dressed head to toe in steely gray, one senses he is ready to get down to business.
Attenborough laughs—he loves to laugh, and he produces a distinctively British sound, a good-natured, throaty chuckle, sometimes accompanied by a mischievous twinkle in the eye. “I was walking down one of those long avenues you have, only in Los Angeles. Only in America. And I came across something you couldn’t find in England in a month of Sundays.” He pauses for effect. “A shoe superstore. That’s when I bought my first Converse. You know, I don’t look good in those great big walloping things you see people wear on the Metro, with the tongues hanging out and all that. I’m so small, it would just look like a pair of shoes walking around.”
Indeed, at 5 feet and a few more inches, Attenborough cuts a kindly and warm figure. Though he was recently appointed Commander of the British Empire for his services to theatre, he insists on being called “Mike” by friends and colleagues.
Aside from his shoes, one could note the obvious: his track-record in the highest echelons of the British theatre world. He has spent the past 11 years as Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre in London. A critics’ favorite, the Almeida is known internationally for its successful transfers of productions to the West End and Broadway. In addition to his work at the Almeida, Attenborough has more than three decades of experience at the helm of major institutions in British theatre, including a 12-year run as Principle Associate Director at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
In 2013, Attenborough stepped down from his post at the Almeida (he was given a gold pair of Converses by the head of the Marketing department) in order to focus on his directing career. The free time has allowed Attenborough the luxury of returning to Shakespeare’s works and the privilege of traveling the world. This production of As You Like It in Washington follows a production of Macbeth he directed last year in Brisbane, Australia.
Drawing on his large network of contacts in classical theatre, Attenborough has added some classical British pedigree to the cast. His Rosalind is Zoë Waites, the star of his landmark Romeo and Juliet at the RSC (it was the first interracial cast for the play at the company), and the Goneril to Jonathan Pryce’s King Lear in Attenborough’s final production at the Almeida. Attenborough considers Rosalind—and Waites—as crucial to his As You Like It. Listening to him talk, one can see why he turned to a trusted collaborator.
“The center of this play, the heartbeat of this play, sits inside the character who, in my view, is probably Shakespeare’s most extraordinary achievement in writing about women. I think Rosalind is the female Hamlet; she is as complex, interesting, deep and contradictory as Hamlet is. She’s smarter than everyone in this play—she’s even smarter than Jaques, and he’s as smart as they come,” he says. “This will be the fifth play I’ve done with Zoë, and I trust her absolutely. She’ll be a wonderful Rosalind.”
Attenborough’s vision for the production is startlingly clean, intimate and modern, befitting a director equally comfortable with the classics and contemporary writers such as Edward Albee, Neil Labute and Lucy Kirkwood. Jonathan Fensom’s set for the pastoral Forest of Arden, usually rendered in photo-naturalistic detail, is instead an imaginary landscape of silken sheets, capable of transforming at the snap of a hand. For the incidental music, Attenborough had the inspired idea of calling Thomas Newman, the award-winning composer for such films as American Beauty, Revolutionary Road and many others. “Sam Mendes is a good friend of mine from the RSC,” Attenborough says, “and I came to him hat very much in hand to see if he could put me in touch with Thomas. I’m very grateful that Thomas has said yes.” He pauses, when asked about the ethereal, textural sound that Newman’s music produces. “It’s music that makes you want to fall in love.”
Once you start noticing things about Attenborough, in fact, it’s hard to stop. He’s also an excellent storyteller, given to digressive (sometimes ribald, always delightful) excursions about his life and career.
Of course, the one subject to which he returns most frequently is to his notable namesake, his father, Lord Richard Attenborough. Of his father, the late actor turned Oscar-winning director and philanthropist, Michael says simply, “He was my hero, and also my best friend.” Mere weeks before rehearsals began in Washington, Richard died, leaving Michael not only to grieve for the loss of a global presence and cherished father, but also with an unexpected amount of duties to perform as the family’s executor. His presence in the rehearsal room—in all of its colorful, brilliant, wisecracking positivity—functions as an inspiration to all. At the end of the third day, Attenborough paused unexpectedly and addressed the cast. “What better solution to mourning than to spend your time in a room full of theatre artists? Empathy is what you do as actors, empathy for the human spirit. It’s tremendously healing. I feel like I’ve been in a virtual embrace since I’ve been here. There’s honestly no place I’d rather be.”
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of As You Like It runs through December 14 at the Lansburgh Theatre.