Michael Rudman obituary | Theatre

As the elder son of a Texan oil millionaire, a graduate of Oberlin College in Ohio and St Edmund Hall, Oxford, the theatre director Michael Rudman, who has died aged 84, might have eased his way through business or politics to the highest echelons of either greasy pole. Instead, he caught the theatre bug, big time.

On vacation between Oberlin and Oxford he went to the Cannes film festival with his father – who had rejected Pablo Picasso’s offer of a free painting because he liked the guy much more than his art – and landed his first job as a stagehand with the radical New York collective Living Theatre, on their first European tour.

Rudman was tall, good-looking and charming, like two other American directors making a big impact on the London radical theatre scene in the mid-1960s – Charles Marowitz at the RSC and the Open Space, and Jim Haynes at the Arts Lab in Covent Garden – but he finally trod, with utter conviction, a more conventional path.

Warren Mitchell as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, directed by Michael Rudman at the National Theatre, 1979.Pin
Warren Mitchell as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, directed by Michael Rudman at the National Theatre, 1979. Photograph: Reg Wilson

His hero was Arthur Miller, whose greatest play, Death of a Salesman, he directed in three major productions: at the Nottingham Playhouse, where he was an assistant in the late 60s, with John Neville as Willy Loman; at the National in 1979, with Warren Mitchell (who introduced him to Tottenham Hotspur, a football club he supported for the rest of his life); and on Broadway in 1984 with Dustin Hoffman as Willy and newcomer John Malkovich as Biff, both magnificent, in a Tony-award-winning “best revival” category.

As the artistic director of the Hampstead Theatre Club in the 70s, he made his mark as a sensitive and intelligent director of good actors in good new plays, several of which transferred to the West End: Nigel Hawthorne and Alan Howard in the elliptical, magical The Ride Across Lake Constance, by Peter Handke; Billie Whitelaw, Barbara Ferris and Felicity Kendal – the latter his future wife – in two of Michael Frayn’s early hits, Alphabetical Order and Clouds – the first an “office” play set in the cuttings library of a provincial newspaper, the second charting the adulterous love affair of two married journalists “covering” Cuba; and Oscar James in Michael Hastings’s Gloo Joo, an award-winning comedy about a black British, Brixton resident being wrongly targeted by immigration officers and helped out by a progressive rabbi.

Judi Dench (Isabella) and Christopher Hancock (Duke Vincentio) in Measure for Measure, 1965, at the Nottingham Playhouse, directed by John Neville assisted by Michael Rudman.Pin
Judi Dench (Isabella) and Christopher Hancock (Duke Vincentio) in Measure for Measure, 1965, at the Nottingham Playhouse, directed by John Neville assisted by Michael Rudman. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

This remarkable five years, stewarded by his Oxford friend and contemporary David Aukin as his administrator, and climaxing in Mike Leigh’s staging of his own television play, Abigail’s Party, propelled Rudman into an associate directorship of the National Theatre with Peter Hall. He programmed the Lyttelton auditorium for three years and continued to direct for another five after Hall changed the system to one whereby the companies worked across the three NT venues.

His productions included a glorious revival of Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered in 1980, later televised by the BBC; a notable 1981 Caribbean version of Measure for Measure (one of his favourite plays), with Norman Beaton as Angelo, Peter Straker as Lucio and Stefan Kalipha as the Duke; Kendal in the Ellen Terry role of Pinero’s The Second Mrs Tanqueray; Frances de la Tour in Neil Simon’s touching autobiographical Brighton Beach Memoirs, which transferred to the Aldwych in 1986; and Brian Friel’s beautiful adaptation of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons with new shooting stars Ralph Fiennes and Lesley Sharp in a company led by Alec McCowen, Richard Pasco, and Barbara Jefford, all of them Rudman regulars.

He won the respect of actors, especially the most technically gifted, as he had a very good ear, and he relished their talent. Rehearsing McCowen and Geraldine McEwan in a 1980 revival of Rattigan’s The Browning Version and Harlequinade double-bill was, he said, “the most fun I’ve ever had with the lights on”.

He had far less fun when he moved on to run Chichester Festival theatre in 1990. After a bumpy first season in which Hall’s production of Born Again, a misguided musical version of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, was a disaster, he was fired just three weeks after divorcing Kendal – who had fallen in love with Tom Stoppard. He picked up the pieces in a happier post as director of Sheffield Theatres for three years in the 90s, and often returned to direct at Chichester.

Born in Tyler, Texas, Michael was the elder son of MB “the Duke” Rudman and his wife, Josephine (nee Davis), a schoolteacher whose enthusiasm and efficiency on the golf course her son inherited. He was educated at St Mark’s school in Dallas before going on to Oberlin and Oxford (1961-64), where he was elected president of the dramatic society.

Dinsdale Landen (John) and Barbara Ferris (Leslie) in Alphabetical Order by Michael Frayn at the Hampstead Theatre Club, 1975, directed by Michael Rudman.Pin
Dinsdale Landen (John) and Barbara Ferris (Leslie) in Alphabetical Order by Michael Frayn at the Hampstead Theatre Club, 1975, directed by Michael Rudman. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

On graduating, he went straight to Nottingham, where he directed Neville, Judi Dench and Edward Woodward in Measure for Measure, and Gillian Martell and the American film star Robert Ryan in Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. After an unhappy nine months as an assistant at the RSC, he was ready to run his own theatre.

He succeeded Max Stafford-Clark in charge of the Traverse in Edinburgh. While Stafford-Clark stayed on to run a workshop company in the old Traverse in Lawnmarket, Rudman directed the Grassmarket company in new plays by Stanley Eveling, Syd Cheatle (Straight Up transferred to the Piccadilly in 1971), Tom Mallin and CP Taylor, with Alan Howard, Ian Holm and Tom Conti prominent.

Michael Rudman and Felicity Kendal. They married in 1983.Pin
Michael Rudman and Felicity Kendal. They married in 1983. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

This experience left him well placed to succeed Vivian Matalon at Hampstead. As he said, he took “the potentially commercial plays that no commercial management was willing to take a chance on” but he still found room for fringe companies such as the People Show and the new Joint Stock company in David Hare’s play Fanshen, and supervised unlikely commercial hits of Pam Gems’s Dusa, Fish, Stas and Vi, and Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man.

The producer Michael Codron was on the Hampstead board, and the Frayn plays came to him through Codron’s encouragement and connections. A third Frayn play, Donkeys’ Years (1976), went straight into the West End after a short commercial tour, and ran for 18 months, with Penelope Keith as Lady Driver, the master’s wife in an Oxbridge college who tries to rekindle an old flame during an old boys’ reunion, and brought farcical premonitions of Frayn’s later hit, Noises Off.

By then, Michael Blakemore had replaced Rudman as Frayn’s first choice director after Rudman turned down Frayn’s Make and Break at the National – no one really understood why, and Rudman didn’t say in his otherwise revelatory memoir, I Joke Too Much (2014). Blakemore took it on at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 1980.

Other Rudman shows done directly in the West End included a dreadful revival of Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot at the Apollo Victoria in 1982 with Richard Harris and Fiona Fullerton; Jeffrey Archer’s Exclusive (1989), which somehow attracted the talents of Paul Scofield, Eileen Atkins and McCowen; and a wonderful revival in 2000 of Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels, with Kendal and De la Tour as tipsy best friends catching up with a French boyfriend they had shared in the past; now married to much duller men, they were “ripe for a lapse”.

By this time, Kendal and Stoppard had split up and she returned to Rudman after eight years (in 1998) and stayed with him for the rest of his life, though they never remarried.

As well as the memoir, Rudman, who had a wicked sense of humour and a sardonic turn of phrase, wrote a very funny play, Short List (1983), produced at Hampstead after he had left, with Ian McKellen, Maxine Audley and Barbara Flynn bitching backstage at an awards ceremony they were judging; and another, less funny, Benchmark (2002), co-written with Bud Shrake, his Texan golf buddy, in which Jerry Hall played an actor toying with two exes; the character even converted to Judaism for one of them, as Kendal had for Rudman.

Rudman always regretted that his 2013 production of Chin-Chin, a 1960 adaptation by Willis Hall of a French boulevard comedy, starring Kendal and Simon Callow, never reached the West End. His last London show, in 2016, was, fittingly, by Miller, at the Rose Kingston, Hall’s last theatre building, though the reviews for All My Sons were more respectable than ecstatic.

He was twice married, twice divorced, to and from, Veronica Bennett (1963-81) and Felicity Kendal (1983-91), and is survived by Felicity and their son, Jacob; two daughters, Amanda and Katherine, from his first marriage; and by his grandchildren, Catherine, Archie, Dylan, Lucas and Rosa. A younger brother, Wolfe, predeceased him.

Michael Edward Rudman, theatre director, born 14 February 1939; died 30 March 2023

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