Michael Joyce, stage manager, director: born Galway 30 November 1945; died London 15 September 1994
MICHAEL JOYCE was a theatre director and teacher who worked widely in Britain and the United States, and whose early training in the late Sixties at the Royal Court Theatre, in London, remained the touchstone by which he gauged all his subsequent work.
Joyce was born in Galway in 1945. He came to London from Dublin with his boyhood friend Jimmy Burke to look for work in 1964. His interest in the theatre was quickened by seeing Bill Gaskill’s production of Mother Courage for the National Theatre at the Old Vic, and he subsequently went to work at the Royal Court as a dresser on the DH Lawrence season during Gaskill’s time as artistic director. He was taken on as a student stage manager at pounds 5 a week, and won promotion to the permanent stage management team. His black curls helped to make Michael Joyce a distinctive figure in Sloane Square in the late Sixties. He worked with all the Court directors of the time – Anthony Page, Jane Howell, Lindsay Anderson – during a particularly rich patch of work including the Edward Bond season and plays by Christopher Hampton, John Osborne and David Storey.
He transferred with Donald Howarth’s Three Months Gone (1970) to the Duchess Theatre and afterwards pursued a freelance stage management career that included a much-enjoyed stint with Jean-Louis Barrault at the Roundhouse before becoming resident at the Aldwych Theatre to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Peter Daubeny’s World Theatre Seasons. He worked with many of the RSC’s directors, but most admired Peter Hall and Peter Wood. He always expressed a marked ambivalence to the RSC.
Joyce was an actor’s stage manager, showing a special understanding of the difficulties of being a member of a large company. He was, for example, able to handle a talent like Nicol Williamson’s with particular sensitivity. It was at this time that he forged a special relationship with Margaret Tyzack and Tim Pigott-Smith.
He helped me set up a workshop at the Royal Court in 1975 which led to productions of Edward Bond’s The Fool at the Court and As You Like It at the Nottingham Playhouse, and was my assistant on both. He and Walter Donohue worked together on The Fool, and the impassioned voluble Galway Irishman combined with the laid- back soft-spoken Irish-American made an often hilarious combative and richly creative support team.
Joyce later returned to the Nottingham Playhouse to help Richard Eyre set up a season which included Joyce’s first production as director – Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, with Anthony Sher, a play Joyce had worked on at the Aldwych as stage manager.
He went back to Sloane Square as an assistant director at a time when Nicholas Wright and Robert Kidd were running the theatre, and which seems in retrospect to have been a coda to George Devine’s Royal Court. There he worked, in 1976, with Samuel Beckett on Footfalls, which was to form an indelible impression on him, and directed Tunde Ikoli’s first play Short Sleeves in Summer.
He joined the Bristol Old Vic as an Associate Director to Richard Cotterill in a time before today’s cutbacks and over-management, when the Old Vic was allowed to run the Theatre Royal, the Studio and the Little Theatre. Joyce’s influence ensured that many of the most talented young actors of the day seemed to be working there including David Foxxe, Belinda Lang, Mark Drewry, Richard Howard, Julie Walters, Pete Postlethwaite, Maria Aitken, June Barrie, Tim Pigott-Smith, Anna Nygh, Angela Morant and Marty Cruickshank.
Joyce was a champion of the then assistant director Adrian Noble and helped Noble to forge his relationship with the designer Bob Crowley. It was here too that he met the director Penny Cherns who remained one of his closest friends and colleagues. However it was inevitable that such a typical product of the Court would lack the necessary political tact, and he was soon back in London directing Mustapha Matura’s A Dying Business, at Riverside Studios, in 1979.
He pursued a various freelance career to the end of his life, both in Britain and in the United States including The Seagull in Belfast, Macbeth in Utah, The Bengal Lancer at the Lyric Hammersmith and in 1990 Julius Ceasar for Compass (the last two with Pigott- Smith). Preferred too late, his directing never flowered to the maturity he undoubtedly achieved in his teaching work.
He had an acute, personal, yet remarkably unprejudiced taste in acting, which, combined with an equally penetrating and catholic understanding of the theatre, informed his work with student actors. He taught in most of the London drama schools, but was particularly associated with Lamda and with the Royal National Theatre Studio since its inception. In this work his influence on a great number of actors both at the start of their working lives and in mid- career was profound.
He had a particular feeling for American students, here and in the United States. In 1986 he went back to Ireland for three years to found and run the acting programme at Trinity College Dublin, taking particular encouragement from the developing liberalism in what was to become Mary Robinson’s Ireland.
There is no doubt that Michael Joyce came to feel lately that the ethic he had learnt at the Court now being ignored. He found it difficult to see beyond the coyness of a director who affected not to know what the half-hour call was, or the designer faced with Miss Julie who said ‘I don’t do realism.’ After Beckett, his favourite writer was Congreve. ‘Ah dear Marwood’, says Lady Wishfort, ‘what’s integrity to an opportunity?’ – much what Michael Joyce thought was underpinning present policy in the British theatre.