Meet the folks: The Coen brothers’ musical odyssey continues, on stage and on film

To coincide with the release of "Inside Llewyn Davis", the Coen brothers held a glitzy tribute to American folk - where Marcus Mumford and Carey Mulligan were joined on stage by Joan Collins and Jack White.

You know you’re in for a certain kind of gig when the microphones are ranged upon an Ottoman carpet. A roadie in braces and a trilby with a foot-long beard that’s taken months of topiary scuttles across the stage at the Town Hall in New York, and John Goodman steps up to relate a brief history of American folk music. “Emerging from the primordial sludge,” he says, “the earliest human beings banged gourds, then they hollowed the gourds out and strung them with wire. And Pete Townshend came along and smashed the gourds, and Jimi Hendrix set them on fire . . .”

In the new Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis, Goodman plays the fictional jazz legend Rowland Turner, a creation that’s two parts Dr John and one part Doc Pomus with the Caesar haircut of the sax great Gerry Mulligan. Turner has nothing but contempt for the Greenwich Village folk scene in which the movie is set, its “cowboy chords” a moronic contrast to the cosmic possibilities of his 12-note scale.

Inside Llewyn Davis centres on an almost-forgotten period in the folk revival, before Peter, Paul and Mary, before Paul Simon and Bob Dylan – just –when the idea of faithfully reproducing old-time songs was starting to merge with the revolutionary notion of making them your own. Its hero is based (only loosely, if you believe the Coens) on Dave Van Ronk, otherwise known as the Mayor of MacDougal Street, a talented guitarist and singer credited with bringing the blues to Greenwich Village, whose Inside Dave Van Ronk was released in 1963. He’d been briefly considered for a folk-pop trio with Peter Yarrow but was deemed too idiosyncratic, and the part went to Paul Stookey instead (in the group that became Peter, Paul and Mary).

If O Brother, Where Art Thou? was the Coens’ musical odyssey, an American journey signposted by the country’s oldest songs, then this is a story of missed connections. Throughout the film, folk songs are performed in exquisite close-up (and, unusually for the movies, in full) but just as you’re experiencing the warm rush of a communal cinematic thrill, someone bursts the bubble – such as when a Texas soldier, Troy Nelson (played by Stark Sands), gives a spellbinding rendition of Tom Paxton’s “The Last Thing on My Mind” and our hero asks, “Does he have a higher function?”

In the early 1960s, American folk and country music was filled with Private Nelsons – pretty mockingbirds who’d ship back to Galveston for duty after a gig at the Gaslight and wait for a call from Capitol Records. Llewyn Davis is an angry young man – “I am not a performing monkey, I do this for a living” – but he wants fame and a record deal like anyone else. From the guys in Aran sweaters singing “The Auld Triangle” (read: the Clancy Brothers) to “sell-outs” such as Davis’s pal Jim Berkey (played by Justin Timberlake), whose novelty song “Please, Mr Kennedy” is a number-one hit in the making, the film is an encyclopaedic examination of the notion of “keeping it real”.

At an exclusive gig on Sixth Avenue attended by half the cast of Girls, where Marcus Mumford and Carey Mulligan perform along with Joan Baez and Jack White, the idea of authenticity seems particularly relevant.

There are 37 songs – three hours of “cowboy chords” – to celebrate the film and raise funds for the National Recording Preservation Foundation. The film’s music producer, T-Bone Burnett, who made bluegrass sexy again with his soundtracks to Cold Mountain, O Brother . . . and HBO’s Nashville, says Inside Llewyn Davis is more relevant now than it would have been 20 years ago: the internet has left musicians such as Llewyn with little chance of a paying career, and – though not literally stuck in a car in a snowstorm with an abusive jazzer, on the way to an audition where a man in a polo neck tells you he “can’t see any money it” – our young musicians are figuratively out on their arses.

The stage is thronged with two or three bands (the Punch Brothers, the Avett Brothers, components of Mumford & Sons), all chosen for their antique sensibilities, all wearing the 1930s-era regulation uniform of braces and shirt, and performing old songs such as “Five Hundred Miles” and Bob Nolan’s “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”. Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”; Willie Watson, from Rawlings’s band, looks like a younger Tom Waits or a featherweight Desperate Dan, with his simian eyes, his voice as strange as an old radio on a cover of Leadbelly’s “Midnight Special” (“I hear soldiers quit their dyin’ one and all”). Jack White, who sings Sweet Papa Stovepipe’s “Mama’s Angel Child”, is more a caricaturist than an imitator – his loving portraits of Americana always seem to come out more colourful and rubbery than the songs they’re based on.

There’s a strange Gaelic interlude that gets a standing ovation, and occasionally a very important-looking, old, blind blues musician is brought on stage and sits at the back tapping on a tambourine. Someone pays tribute to Florence Reece, the activist, singer and inspiration to Dylan who wrote “Which Side Are You On?” for the Harlan miners in 1931 – and there’s a version of the endlessly adaptable “This Land Is Your Land”, with a few new verses appropriate to the government shutdown that’s threatening to overtake Manhattan the week I’m there.

In general, any mention of unions is guaranteed to get a whoop from the crowd of New York celebrities. In the Coens’ film, the Upper West Side’s relationship with the Greenwich scene is explored in a carousel of well-meaning intellectuals, all of them wearing two-tone specs, for whom having a “folk music friend” is a dinner-party talking point. Carey Mulligan plays the angry singer/exgirlfriend Jean, who appears to be modelled physically on Dylan’s Suze Rotolo, with her black sweater and fringe. Rotolo was one of the reasons the young Dylan, infatuated, started writing protest songs in the first place – well, she and Joan Baez, who’s here tonight, singing about the great union organiser Joe Hill (“The copper bosses killed you, Joe,/They shot you, Joe . . .”).

Baez always seems so normal – she’s first at the after-show buffet, piling her plate – but it doesn’t half sound funny when she says her coolness rating has “gone up by 70 per cent” because she’s sharing a stage with Marcus Mumford. His accent has become rather stylised since he started spending more and more time in America – he says “rascals” and “fella”, like someone playing a cockney in an American film. Then again no one here cares, as they would do in England, whether it’s appropriate for a boy from Hammersmith (although he was born in California) to be singing about cornbread; the question is academic, when no one else here eats it, either.

Mumford performs Dylan’s “Farewell” alongside the new young star of the movie, Oscar Isaac, and for a split second you allow yourself to wonder whether Bob, too, might not have been slightly overbearing on stage the first time anyone saw him – with his strange, grating voice and hobo get-up, acting like he owned the show.

“I fucking hate folk music,” says Llewyn Davis, watching an old lady with a harp performing in reverential silence to an audience of chin-stroking beatniks. On the way to the gig tonight, I waited in the subway next to a busker with a topknot who gave us a rough, mountain-man version of “The House of the Rising Sun”, as his kaftan-wearing girlfriend swayed next to him, singing harmonies you couldn’t actually hear.

Folk music will always attract as much pretension as it does authenticity and that seems to be what the Coens are going for. Patti Smith steps forward for “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You”, announcing that “for the disenfranchised mavericks of 1963, Joan Baez was our humble, undisputed and fierce queen”. Is Smith the result of Baez’s labours or a creation from another time? She seems to know the dif ference. “My dear husband Fred [“Sonic” Smith] would’ve loved to see all these people on stage,” she says. “I don’t even know who they are but I’m glad to see them, too!”

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is released in January

Patti Smith (right) and Joan Baez share a mic on stage at the Coens' concert. Photograph: Rahav Segev.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.