Michael Blakemore, a Single-Season Double Tony Winner for Directing, Dies at 95

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: Benedict Nightingale

Acclaimed in Britain, he had the unique distinction of winning awards for best musical and best play in 2000, for his Broadway revival of “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Copenhagen.”

Michael Blakemore, an acclaimed stage director in Britain and the only one in Broadway history to win Tony Awards for both best play and best musical in the same season, died on Sunday. He was 95.

His death was announced by his agents on Tuesday. It did not say where he died.

Mr. Blakemore was nominated seven times for Tonys, notably for his productions of Peter Nichols’s “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” in 1968 and Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off” in 1983.

But it was the flair and care he brought to a revival of “Kiss Me, Kate,” the Cole Porter show about a troupe of players presenting a musical version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” and to a later Frayn play, “Copenhagen,” that won him the unique double of best direction of a musical and best direction of a play in 2000. (“Kiss Me, Kate” garnered five Tonys altogether, including for best revival of a musical and for best actor in a musical, given to Brian Stokes Mitchell.)

Mr. Blakemore was born in Sydney, Australia, but built his career in Britain, first as an actor and later as one of Laurence Olivier’s associate directors at the National Theater in London.

A scene from Mr. Blakemore’s 2009 Broadway production of Noël Coward’s comedy “Blithe Spirit.” From left were Deborah Rush, Rupert Everett, Angela Lansbury, Jayne Atkinson and Simon Jones.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

There, he staged some highly successful productions: “The National Health,” Mr. Nichols’s sardonic portrayal of British hospitals, and revivals of “The Front Page,” Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s satire of newspaper journalism, and Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” in which he directed Olivier.

It had been widely thought that Mr. Blakemore would succeed Olivier, who stepped down as the National’s artistic director in 1973. Instead, the theater appointed Peter Hall, who had directed Mr. Blakemore in Stratford-upon-Avon during his acting years and with whom he had an intense rivalry. Their relationship soured, and Mr. Blakemore resigned in 1976.

But he went on to prosper as a freelance director. He staged Mr. Nichols’s “Privates on Parade,” a burlesque musical comedy set in post-World War II Malaysia, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he began a long association with Mr. Frayn in 1980 when he directed his drama “Make and Break,” about a businessman who loses his soul.

Then came Mr. Frayn’s “Noises Off,” an inventive farce about second-rate provincial stage actors performing a slapstick sex farce of their own. It transferred from London to Broadway in 1983 and ran for 553 performances there.

“‘Noises Off’ couldn’t have arrived in New York a moment too soon,” Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times. The show, he said, was “as cleverly conceived and adroitly performed a farce as Broadway has seen in an age.”

It was a triumph that, Mr. Blakemore later said, left him feeling that he had at long last ended “the bad dream the National had become.”

Mr. Blakemore in London in 1983 during a production of Michael Frayn’s farce “Noises Off,” which transferred to Broadway that year.Peter Kevin Solness/Fairfax Media, via Getty Images

Michael Howell Blakemore was born on June 18, 1928, in Sydney to Conrad Howell Blakemore, an eminent eye surgeon, and Una Mary (Litchfield) Blakemore. He said he was a descendant of John Quincy Adams through his American grandmother, who supported Michael’s artistic leanings while his father discouraged them. In the first of two memoirs, “Arguments With England” (2004), Mr. Blakemore described his father as an “unpredictable adversary” who disliked “scruffy bohemians and longhaired intellectuals.”

Mr. Blakemore survived what he remembered as the “martinet discipline” of a boarding school, but not a course of study in medicine that his father had persuaded him to take at the University of Sydney. “I solved the problem of how not to be a doctor by failing all my third-year examinations,” he said.

He was more fascinated with theater and film, especially American movies of the 1930s and ’40s, but it was seeing Olivier as Richard III in Sydney that inspired him to go to London to become an actor. He achieved that ambition thanks to another touring British actor, Robert Morley, who befriended the stage-struck Mr. Blakemore, employed him as his publicist and arranged for him to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1950.

After graduating in 1952, Mr. Blakemore was cast in a series of regional repertory productions. Before long he was touring Europe as a Roman captain in Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” a revival starring Oliver and staged by the British director Peter Brook, who became an inspiration to Mr. Blakemore. Mr. Brook, he wrote, “had that concentration, in which empathy and detachment are somehow combined, that I was beginning to recognize as the mark of the good director.”

By 1959 he was in Stratford performing more Shakespeare — as the First Lord in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” in small parts in an Olivier-led “Coriolanus,” and alongside Charles Laughton in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by the fast-rising Mr. Hall.

A scene in 2000 from Mr. Blakemore’s Tony-winning Broadway production of Mr. Frayne’s drama “Copenhagen.” Michael Cumpsty, center, played the physicist Werner Heisenberg; Philip Bosco played his fellow physicist Niels Bohr; and Blair Brown, left, played Bohr’s wife, Margrethe.Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Mr. Blakemore had a difficult relationship from the start with Mr. Hall, who he felt had an overly intellectual approach to directing. He also vied with Mr. Hall for the affections of a company member, Vanessa Redgrave: “Vanessa’s lover was my enemy,” he later wrote. “I would gladly have killed him.” He found himself unwanted when Mr. Hall began to transform Stratford’s summer repertory into the Royal Shakespeare Company.

But by then Mr. Blakemore was determined to become a director, and after playing major roles in the Open Air Theater in London’s Regents Park, he was asked to perform and direct at the prestigious Citizens Theater in Glasgow. It was there that he had his first major success, in 1967, with “Joe Egg,” a darkly comic tale of parents coping with a severely disabled child. Mr. Blakemore had helped his friend Mr. Nichols rework the script, which had been rejected elsewhere. The play transferred to London and then to Broadway (with Albert Finney and Zena Walker) to great acclaim.

Olivier invited Mr. Blakemore to the National in 1969, and he was appointed an associate director in 1971. When Mr. Hall arrived in 1973, he retained Mr. Blakemore in his position, but trouble soon followed.

In his second memoir, “Stage Blood” (2013), Mr. Blakemore gave his version of a conflict that peaked at Mr. Hall’s London apartment, after he had presented a paper to his National colleagues accusing Mr. Hall of failing to consult with his subordinates and taking too much paid work outside the National. He failed to win his colleagues’ support, however, and, after telling Mr. Hall that he was “an extremely greedy man,” Mr. Blakemore resigned. (He later published, in the newspaper The Observer, what he called “The Claudius Diaries,” a satire that cast Olivier as the murdered king in “Hamlet” and Mr. Hall as his killer.)

Mr. Blakemore accepting one of the two Tony Awards he won in 2000. He defined directing as “the imposition of harmony on a gathering of divergent talents.”Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Mr. Blakemore was back at the National in 1997 and 2003 (Mr. Hall had stepped down in 1988), staging “Copenhagen” (which opened on Broadway in 2000) and “Democracy” (which transferred in 2004), productions that demonstrated his ability to bring clarity to extremely complex works. “Copenhagen” is centered on a discursive, argumentative conversation that the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg had in 1941, in part about the building of an atomic bomb. “Democracy” centers on the West German chancellor Willy Brandt and an East German spy who falls in love with him.

Wrestling with complexity was a strength that Mr. Blakemore also brought to “City of Angels,” an intricate Broadway musical with music by Cy Coleman, book by Larry Gelbart and lyrics by David Zippel, in 1989, earning a Tony nomination for his direction.

Known for his calmness in the rehearsal room and, in his words, for “getting my way without anyone particularly noticing,” Mr. Blakemore defined directing as “the imposition of harmony on a gathering of divergent talents.”

It was an ideal he strove to attain, usually successfully, in other Broadway productions, including the Coleman musical “The Life” in 1997, a belated world premiere for Mark Twain’s “Is He Dead?” in 2007 and, in 2009, a revival of Noël Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” with Angela Lansbury at her funniest as the eccentric medium Madame Arcati.

Mr. Blakemore was married twice: in 1960 to Shirley Bush, with whom he had a son, and, after their divorce in 1986, to Tanya McCallin, with whom he had two daughters. He and Ms. McCallin later separated, according to the news release that announced Mr. Blakemore’s death. He is survived by Ms. McCallin; his children, Conrad, Beatrice and Clemmie; and three grandchildren.

Alex Marshall contributed reporting.

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *