Roger Michell: a superb director who brought the unexpected out of actors

Photograph: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP

Roger Michell, who has died aged 65, had two great qualities as a theatre director: a love of actors and a reverence for writers. You might think those qualities are an indispensable part of the job but, at a time when many directors are anxious to leave their own distinctive signature on a work, Michell saw himself as a privileged interpreter rather than a visionary autocrat.

I couldn’t agree more with Peter Bradshaw that Michell’s love of actors was never more manifest than in his 2018 TV documentary Nothing Like a Dame. He could easily have put himself or some egregious host at the centre of the film steering Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins and Joan Plowright along some preordained path. Instead he is simply an invisible presence behind the camera throwing in the odd suggestion and allowing these remarkable women to reminisce in their own chosen fashion. The result is a celebration of the quirky individuality and shared memory of great actors and a priceless document.

Actor’s director … Michael Sheen, Lindsay Duncan and Eddie Marsan in The Homecoming at the National Theatre, 1997. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Michell’s love of actors was visible throughout an extensive theatrical career that embraced the Royal Court, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. Not only were his productions impeccably cast but he also often seemed to bring out something unexpected in his actors. In 1988 Michell directed Edward Bond’s Restoration for the RSC. Simon Russell Beale was playing his third fop in a row in a season that included plays by Farquhar, Wycherley and Etherege but he got far away from roguish campery and emphasised the brutal ennui of Bond’s Lord Are: at one point he flew into a purple tantrum as if his whole life hinged on a missing button.

Michell’s love of actors was clearly reciprocated, judging by the number of times they chose to work with him. Eileen Atkins was memorably seen in Honour at the National in 2003 and The Female of the Species at the Vaudeville in 2008, both by Joanna Murray-Smith. Ben Chaplin was also a regular feature of Michell productions. In Richard Nelson’s Farewell to the Theatre, he played the writer-director Harley Granville Barker as a man burning with thwarted idealism. In Joe Penhall’s Mood Music he became a vampirical record-producer and in Nina Raine’s Consent at the National in 2018 – Michell’s last work for the theatre – he was a lawyer whose courtroom callousness extended to his private life. Under Michell’s astute tutelage, Chaplin constantly extended his range.

Michell’s regard for actors was matched by a comparable affection for writers. One proof of that is how often he worked with the same dramatists: Nina Raine, Richard Nelson, Nick Darke for instance. He also forged a terrific relationship with Joe Penhall which started with his production of Blue/Orange at the National in 2000.

Harry Treadaway, Jacob Casselden, Michelle Terry and Kika Markham in Tribes at the Royal Court, 2010. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

As always, Michell gathered an ace cast: Bill Nighy, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Andrew Lincoln. But Michell also perfectly realised Penhall’s point about the arrogant assurance of medical professionals and the way patients sometimes get treated as a pinball. Pinter was another dramatist to whom Michell was deeply attached and never more fruitfully than in his 2007 revival of Betrayal at the Donmar which revealed – thanks to fine performances from Samuel West, Toby Stephens and Dervla Kirwan – the scorching sense of pain behind this story of labyrinthine deceit.

Michell was a director whose mission was to put the work itself first rather than to ostentatiously intervene: in that sense, I suspect his early years at the Royal Court where he worked with Max Stafford-Clark and in Brighton where he collaborated with Peter Gill were a formative experience.

But Michell was a rare creature in that he was equally at home in theatre or film. Very few people manage to serve both masters with comparable success and, if Michell did so, it was because he brought to them taste, judgment and a belief that the quality of the material mattered more than his own ego.

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