Director sued by Mary Whitehouse for alleged obscenity

Born: December 15, 1938;

Died: April 16, 2017

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MICHAEL Bogdanov, who has died aged 78, was a theatre director known for his risk-taking and iconoclastic take on Shakespeare. But he was best known for the private prosecution for obscenity which the morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse launched against him in the 1980s over his production of the play The Romans in Britain.

The scene Mrs Whitehouse objected to featured a group of Roman soldiers attacking three naked male druids - two of the druids were killed and the third subjected to an attempted rape. The campaigner’s solicitor, sitting in the theatre, believed there was a case to answer under the Sexual Offences Act 1956 and, after the attorney general refused to act, Mrs Whitehouse, who was head of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, took matters into her own hands and launched a prosecution.

At first, Bogdanov assumed there was no chance of success, but after a judge at the Old Bailey ruled the case should be heard, the whole affair became a huge strain on the director. Faced with a potential sentence of three years in prison, he was forced to appear in court to defend himself against the accusation that he had procured an act of gross indecency. The case was eventually dismissed when the defence demonstrated the sexual act shown on stage had been simulated using an actor’s thumb.

Talking about the case years later, Bogdanov said it felt like a juggernaut had been rolling over him, although he was fully supported at the time by Peter Hall, who had commissioned The Romans in Britain for the National Theatre. When Hall employed Bogdanov, he was already established as a successful and colourful director of hundreds of plays and would go on to form the English Shakespeare Company as a response to what he saw as the conservative approach of other major companies.

Bogdanov was born Michael Bogdin in Neath in south Wales to a Welsh mother and father of Lithuanian descent. He was educated at the John Lyon School, Harrow, and studied French and German at Trinity College Dublin. He then stayed on in Dublin for the next 11 years, working in theatre as a producer and director. He also formed the Gas Theatre Company in the city in 1964.

In 1970 he had moved to London and was working as Peter Brook’s assistant on a Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. He went on to direct for the RSC, The Royal Opera House, Sydney Opera House, and Vienna's Burgtheater and for eight years, he was an associate director of the Royal National Theatre. He was also chief executive of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, Germany's largest national theatre, from 1989 to 1992.

However, perhaps his greatest professional achievement was the establishment of the English Shakespeare Company in 1986 with the actor Michael Pennington. Both Bogdanov and Pennington were frustrated at the RSC and the National and launched their new company with productions of Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V. Three years later, Bogdanov won an Olivier award for best director for War of the Roses.

The obscenity trail, when it came, was a shock for Bogdanov who had established a considerable reputation. The Romans in Britain, which was written by Howard Brenton, was always going to be controversial, comparing as it did the Roman invasion of Britain with the British presence in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles.

The play, and in particular the scene with the druids, immediately attracted attention after it opened in October 1980 and the police were known to have visited several times. However, Bogdanov vehemently defended the scene and its symbolism – according to him, it was a metaphor for the rape of one culture by another – and eventually the attorney general declined to act.

A short while later, however, Bogdanov was served a writ by Graham Ross-Cornes, solicitor for Mary Whitehouse, who had not actually attended a performance but was determined to see the director prosecuted.

As the case began to progress through the courts, Bogdanov became increasingly worried. “I can’t pretend it was easy,” he said, “especially when they spent hours discussing whether I should be kept in the cells overnight.” He also began to realise that there could be a realistic prospect of him being found guilty.

However, three days in, the case collapsed when it emerged that Mrs Whitehouse’s solicitor had been sitting near the back of the theatre and the defence questioned whether he could have seen what he said he said he saw. Even so, Mrs Whitehouse claimed the case had been a victory for her campaign to demonstrate that the Sexual Offences Act applied to acts on stage.

For Bogdanov, the result was a relief and an end to 18 months of uncertainty. In later years, he was based permanently in Wales where he formed the Wales Theatre Company and staged a festival celebrating the work of Dylan Thomas. He also wrote a book about his life and career, A Director’s Cue, which was published in 2013.

Bogdanov will be remembered as a risk-taker but also a director who revelled in the ability of theatre to take audiences by surprise. Asked once what gave him the greatest pleasure, he said it was the fact that the theatre still has the power to shock.

Michael Bogdanov is survived by his second wife, their two children and three children from his first marriage.