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Mr Michael Attenborough - Doctor of Letters - Theatre director

Oration by Professor Gordon R Campbell

Michael Attenborough is a theatre director who is at present Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre in Islington, a 320-seat theatre that has rightly been described as the most daring in London. When this theatre was founded in 1980 it was primarily a London venue for radical and avant-garde theatre and opera productions. Through the nineties it became distinguished both for the sheer intelligence of its productions and for its determination to introduce a European dimension into English theatre. Michael Attenborough is the theatre’s third artistic director, and he has honoured and developed the aspirations of its founders, enhancing its world wide reputation as a top quality producing theatre with an eclectic, progressive and risk-taking programme. When the theatre re-opened in 2003 after a £7.5m refurbishment, the first production was of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring the late Natasha Richardson. As artistic director, Michael Attenborough is responsible for the choice of productions, and his choices reflect his own passions as well as his sense of how best to fill the cutting-edge space that the Almeida represents. This summer there is a new festival that gives rarely-offered stage space to four innovative theatre companies, devoted exclusively to new, culturally-diverse work.

Over the past seven years some of the Almeida’s greatest successes have been those Michael Attenborough has directed himself. His production of The Mercy Seat was the world’s first theatrical response to the 9/11 attacks. Subsequent Attenborough productions include the premier of Sam Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss, Frank McGuinness’ There Came A Gypsy Riding with Imelda Staunton and Eileen Atkins, Neil LaBute’s In a Dark Dark House with David Morrissey, and, until last Saturday, the hugely acclaimed When the Rain Stops Falling, all of which pursue the theme of passion within families. His production of a newly commissioned version of Maxim Gorky’s Enemies by David Hare honours the European tradition of the theatre, as does the forthcoming Judgment Day by Ödön von Horváth in a new version by Christopher Hampton, which opens at the Almeida in the autumn. The choice is characteristic of Michael Attenborough; this is a play that has a strong moral edge in its presentation of judgement occluded by passion, and a clear place in a radical political tradition.

These recent productions are the work of a man who has been steeped in the theatre all his life. At the University of Sussex, where he read English, Michael was also President of the Drama Society. He emerged from years of student drama knowing that he wanted to spend his professional life in the theatre, and realising that he had to choose between acting and directing. He chose the latter, and in the 1970s was successively Associate Director of Colchester's Mercury Theatre, the Leeds Playhouse and the Young Vic. At Leeds he directed 26 plays in five years, including new works by Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale and Arnold Wesker as well as classics by Chekhov, Shaw and Shakespeare. At the Young Vic, Michael directed Joe Orton's What the Butler Saw and The Merchant of Venice. In 1980 he was appointed Artistic Director of the Palace Theatre in Watford, where attendances during his five year tenure averaged 92 per cent capacity; for Michael Attenborough, theatre is not simply a means of artistic expression, but is also an exercise in creating audiences for his particular blend of classical and contemporary plays. In the mid 1980s he was appointed Artistic Director of the Hampstead Theatre, where five of the 33 plays he produced transferred to the West End and one to Broadway. The theatre won 23 awards under his directorship, mostly for his own productions, including the seminal Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme by Frank McGuinness. In 1989 he became Artistic Director of the Turnstyle Group, one of his productions being Fashion by Doug Lucie, which opened in the Leicester Haymarket before transferring to London.

In 1990 Michael Attenborough joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he spent 12 years as Executive Producer and Principal Associate Director. His productions included the world premier of David Edgar’s award-winning Pentecost; Shakespeare’s Othello, which saw the first black actor playing the role in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for more than 40 years; and Henry IV Parts I and II in the Swan, which for once had a Part II that maintained the dramatic vibrancy of Part I. Indeed, Michael is particularly adept with Shakespeare plays that have a fault line in the middle: his acclaimed touring production of Romeo and Juliet was completely gripping even after the death of Mercutio, and his Anthony and Cleopatra, with Sinead Cusack, remained compelling in the difficult fifth act, after Anthony has died. In 2002 the Almeida Theatre wisely headhunted him as its Artistic Director. On leaving the RSC he was appointed an Honorary Associate Artist. Throughout his career Michael has also undertaken free-lance productions including plays for the Royal Court and the National Theatre in London, the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and two theatres on Broadway.

Many of our honorary graduates have a link with Leicester, and in Michael Attenborough’s case the hint is in the surname. The University’s Attenborough Tower is named after Michael’s grandfather, Frederick Attenborough, who served as Principal of this University when it was still a University College. Michael’s father is the actor, director and producer Richard Attenborough and his uncle the naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough, both firm friends of this university. In honouring Michael Attenborough we recognise his standing as a Director and Artistic Director, but we also delight in this third-generation association with this University.

Mr Chancellor, on the authority of the Senate and the Council, I present Michael Attenborough, that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Letters.

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