Michael Boyd

Born: July 6, 1955;

Died: August 4, 2023

Michael Boyd, who has died aged 68, was a theatre director whose visionary work put the Tron Theatre, Glasgow on the theatrical map, before going on to reinvent the Royal Shakespeare Company on a grand scale. During his decade in Glasgow from the mid-1980s to the mid-90s, Boyd cast Iain Glen in the title role of Macbeth (1993) and directed a radical staging of Janice Galloway’s novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1995).

Boyd was also instrumental in bringing the work of Quebecois writer Michel Tremblay to Scotland. Working with contemporary Scots translations by Bill Findlay and Martin Bowman, Boyd directed Scottish premieres of The Guid Sisters (1989) and The Real Wurld? (1991), with The Guid Sisters touring to Quebec, setting in motion a Scots/Quebecois cultural exchange that continues today.

Boyd also oversaw a remarkable flowering of artistic talent, with Alan Cumming, Forbes Masson, Peter Mullan, Siobhan Redmond and composer Craig Armstrong all finding a platform at the Tron. Known and loved for his generosity and inquiring intelligence, without Boyd, the renaissance of Glasgow as a cultural capital would have looked very different.

John Michael Boyd was born in Belfast, the younger of two children to Sheila (nee Small), an art teacher, and John Boyd, a doctor. He spent most of his childhood in Northern Ireland, before moving with his family to London, where he attended Latymer Upper School. Another move took Boyd to Edinburgh, where he went to then Daniel Stewart’s College (now Stewart’s Melville College), before studying English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

He joined the university’s drama society, and appeared in Hello, are you coming to the show? a BBC documentary film following an Edinburgh student theatre company as they toured a medieval play, Gammer Gurton’s Needle, around the Highlands. It is Boyd who appears first in Peter Carr’s film, broadcast in 1974 as the third episode of a series called The Entertainers. Dressed in period costume, Boyd and a fellow student actor are seen knocking on doors in a Highland village, trying to rustle up an audience. It is his opening question to one local resident that gives the film its title.

Boyd won a British Council fellowship in 1978 to train as a theatre director under Soviet legend, Anatoly Efros, at the Malaya Bronnaya Theatre, Moscow. before becoming a trainee director at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry. In 1980, he worked at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, with a production of Hard to Get, a new play by Marcella Evaristi later produced for television. Boyd and Evaristi went on to marry, and had twins before divorcing several years later.

In 1982, he joined the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield as Associate Director, directing productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and A Passion in Six Days, a musical by Howard Barker set at the Labour Party conference, and memorably described by Boyd in an interview with The Herald as “the first and last Howard Barker musical.”

In 1985, he was appointed artistic director of the Tron, the former Tron Kirk building at the east end of Argyle Street. The building had originally been taken over by the Glasgow Theatre Club in 1981, after the club was set up in 1978 in an attempt to replace the Citizens Theatre’s experimental Close theatre. Early productions by Boyd included Muir (1986), by Peter Arnott; and McGrotty and Ludmilla (1986), by Alasdair Gray.

In 1989, Boyd brought Iain Heggie’s play, Clyde Nouveau, to Edinburgh, and in 1990, Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture, he directed five productions. These ranged from Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come, and a staging of Ted Hughes’ narrative poem, Crow, to new plays by Scottish writers. The Baby, by Chris Hannan; Paddy’s Market, by Tony Roper; and The Witches of Pollok, by Anne Downie all featured in the season.

Boyd really came into his own with Macbeth and The Trick is to Keep Breathing, the latter of which cast three actresses playing different facets of the play’s protagonist. After that came a revival of CP Taylor’s play, Good, for the 1992 Edinburgh International Festival. Boyd changed the tone somewhat with Dumbstruck (1994), David Kane’s runaway black farce set in an old school showbiz boarding house. His final production at the Tron came in 1996 with a look at Samuel Beckett’s play, Endgame.

By this time, Boyd had forged two significant partnerships that would last the rest of his life. The first was with designer Tom Piper, with whom Boyd collaborated on many productions at the Tron and the RSC. The second was with Caroline Hall. The pair were together from 1991, and they had a daughter. They married in 2004.

In 1996, Boyd left Glasgow to become Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and in 2001 took over from Adrian Noble as artistic director. Having inherited a £2.8 million deficit, Boyd could have played safe and stuck to regurgitating set text favourites. His response, however, was more ambitious.

“I was both unlucky and unlucky there,” Boyd told The Herald. “There were these massive expectations about this historical institution, but it was in a terrible state. I was very lucky in terms of the press, who were up for change, so I was able to go, look, there's only one answer, and only one way forward, which is to be bold, and to make big decisions. There were those against it, but they couldn't argue, and I think we did okay.”

Highlights of Boyd’s tenure included This England, a staging of the entire Histories cycle; and a yearlong festival of Shakespeare’s complete works. Boyd also reached out to other companies, and launched a redevelopment of the company's base in Stratford, with a temporary space built to house the History plays prior to its transfer to the Roundhouse.

Boyd went on to produce the World Shakespeare Festival for the London Olympics 2012, took seven Shakespeare plays to New York and directed commercial hit, Matilda the Musical. More recently, his New York production of Marlowe's Tamburlaine scooped several awards, and he moved into directing opera, Monteverdi's ORFEO, with the Royal Opera at The Roundhouse.

Boyd received a knighthood in 2012, and in 2016 was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Boyd worked in Scotland again several times. In 1999, he returned to oversee the New Beginnings Festival of Soviet Arts. In 2016, at the Traverse, he directed Quebecois writer Catherine-Anne Toupin’s play, Right Now, which had themes Boyd likened to The Trick is to Keep Breathing.

Boyd returned to Scotland again to direct a revival of Liz Lochhead’s version of Medea, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland at the 2022 Edinburgh International Festival. This was world-class stuff, but Boyd never forgot his directing roots.

“I look back on my time at the Tron with enormous fondness and a lot of pride,” Boyd told The Herald. “It took about five years to build up a head of steam. After that we couldn't go wrong. Everything we touched while I was at the Tron seemed to work. It was where I found my voice as a director.”

He is survived by his wife, Caroline Hall, their daughter, Rachael, twins Gabriella and Daniel with Evaristi, a grandson, Taliesin, and his elder sister, Susan.

Neil Cooper