Michael Attenborough

Oration given by the Public Orator, Dr Paul Jenkins, on the award of an honorary degree to Michael Attenborough on 11 July 2017

The theatre director Michael Attenborough is the son of Richard, Lord Attenborough and Nephew of Sir David Attenborough.  The connection between the Attenborough family and Leicester started when Michael’s grandfather Fredrick became Principal of the University College of Leicester in 1932 and led its expansion to a fully-fledged University.

Grandfather Fredrick was a dyed in the wool academic with a lifetime of experience and love of learning.  So it came as quite a shock when his eldest son Richard declared that he did not intend to go to University as he wanted to be an actor.  Eventually Frederick relented and agreed that Richard could study to be an actor if he got the most competitive scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  Well, Richard duly got the scholarship and went to RADA where he met Michael’s mother Sheila Sim.   With his father, Richard, as an example, no such battles were necessary when it became clear that Michael’s ambition was to be a theatre director.  His early theatre experience came at the University of Sussex where he studied English and was President of the Drama Society.

There was very little formal training for theatre directors available in the UK at that time and Michael learned direction on the job.

After graduation Michael took up the post of Assistant Director of the Sussex University Arts Centre.  He then moved to Associate Director posts first in Colchester and subsequently in Leeds, where in the course of five years he directed no less than 26 productions including new plays as well as a range of major classics by Chekov, Shaw and Shakespeare.

In 1979, Michael became Associate Director of the Young Vic.

A year later he was appointed Artistic Director first at The Palace Theatre, Watford, and then at the Hampstead Theatre.  Next came a big step when Michael joined the Royal Shakespeare Company as Executive Producer and Principal Associate Director.  The RSC had a turnover of £40M per year, employed 700 people, and had three theatres in Stratford and two at the Barbican in London.  Clearly the responsibility for staffing, funding and running the artistic programme was a huge task.  This - and Michael’s aim of always leading from the front by directing as many productions as possible himself - gave him a very busy 12 years at the RSC.

He relished the challenge of directing Shakespeare and ensuring the plays are completely accessible to a contemporary audience.  Michael confronted head-on modern actors' huge discomfort and fear of Shakespeare. All an actor had when he stepped out onto the Globe stage on a sunny afternoon in 1599 in front of 2,500 people was Shakespeare’s words. It was Michael's belief that everything an actor needed to know about his or her character lay in the language which Shakespeare provides and that their work today should start with a forensic examination of the text.

After 12 years at the RSC Michael moved to the Almeida Theatre in London where he was appointed Artistic Director in 2003.  Under Michael’s leadership the Almeide continued to be a centre for avant garde theatre.  During his tenure the Almeida produced twenty eight premiers, ten new versions of foreign plays, ten new plays for young people and four major drama festivals.

In 2012 he received the International Theatre Institute Award for Excellence and in 2013 the CBE for services to the theatre. 
Since leaving the Almeida in 2013 Michael has worked as a freelance director.  Recent productions include Macbeth in Australia, As you Like It in Washington, as well as productions for the National Theatre, the Royal Court and the Chichester Festival Theatre.

Michael has also recently acquired the ‘teaching bug.’

Alongside his directing he is now teaching at RADA, (where he is Honorary Director Emeritus), the Arts Educational Drama School, (where he is their Patron), Sussex University (where he is Honorary Professor of English and Drama) and St Mary's University, Twickenham. 
At the heart of Michael’s work with students, lies the conviction that the key to Shakespeare is to understand his work as theatre rather than literature. At the latest count Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, which were performed to a largely illiterate audience. Today, the challenge is to marry Shakespeare's oral tradition with the contemporary actor's postFreudian, post-Stanislavski methodology. To strive, as Shakespeare put it, 'to suit the word to the action, the action to the word'.

Michael met his wife Karen Lewis while she was working at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester. They will work together on his next project, a film of the award winning play 'The Herbal Bed', with Michael as director and Karen as Associate Producer.  The story is based on a series of extraordinary facts about Shakespeare's elder daughter, Susanna.

Michael has received Honorary Doctorates from the Universities of Sussex and Leicester.  He has continued his own and his family’s long and invaluable connection with the University of Leicester in many ways, not least as a very supportive patron of the Attenborough Arts Centre which was founded by his father Richard.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the senate and council I present to you Michael John Attenborough that you may appoint him  Distinguished Honorary Fellow of the University.

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