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All that glitters

With a display of the opulent clothing of Russian royalty, are post-Communist curators inviting us t

Following the dynamism of its expansive "Cold War Modern" exhibition - blueprints for a better world and bomb shelters for a destroyed world - the Victoria and Albert Museum in London is staging "Magnificence of the Tsars", a smaller offering strikingly different in texture and tone. The display is subtitled "Ceremonial Men's Dress of the Russian Imperial Court (1721-1917)" and the exhibits are on loan from the Kremlin Museums, including the celebrated Armoury Chamber. Elena Gagarina, general director, explains the intention: "to introduce the British public to the art of the finest dressmakers, tailors, embroiderers and jewellers working for the Russian imperial court". But a warning: these are almost exclusively male costumes, the peacocks' plumage, bypassing even Catherine the Great.

Much can be found to admire here in cut, taste and craftsmanship, the cleverly supported flared coats, the playful boot-cuff sleeves popular for ten years from 1725, the beautiful greens, the periodic reversions to plainer surfaces, often reflecting European fashions. Some of the most delicately created royal garments on display carry no jewels or elaborate embroidery at all - creamy undergarments in fine holland linen, gaiters, kid gloves. But the outer garments worn as symbols of authority bring a cumulative impression of pomp, ceremony and the shameless opulence of the Romanov autocracy.

One wonders whether the curators of post-Communist Russia are inviting us to forget why the tsars had to go. While one group of specialists attached to the major museums of Moscow and St Petersburg is now keen to display the liberating modernist paintings previously hidden in the cellars, the Kremlin Museums are parading the high styles of the imperial centuries with pride and zest. One's admiration for the tsars' designers and the meticulous skills of their tailors is likely to be offset by the same sense of revulsion brought on a few years ago by the lavish travelling show "Jewels of the Romanovs: Treasures of the Russian Imperial Court".

Touring the exhibition in the enlightening company of its curator Svetlana A Amelekhina, I began to feel as if I was imprisoned in Madame Tussauds without the heads. An alternative display would venture out to photographs (there are a few) and the paintings of Ilya Repin: for example, his marvellous 1880s canvas depicting a religious procession in the Kursk region down a dirt track, along which the tsar's subjects - the poor, the lame, the crippled - follow a huge ornate shrine, candles glittering within, in the hope of divine healing. Or, more pedestrian yet revealing, and also by Repin, Alexander III's Audience for the District Elders in the Yard of the Petrovsky Palace, Moscow (1885-86). Here, the tsar stands rather nervously, only four years after his father's assassination by revolutionaries, adorned with medals galore, granting an audience that he clearly hopes will soon be over. At the V&A we see the uniform but not the man.

Or, to indicate the anti-monarchical perspective, why not include a poster issued abroad in 1900 by the Union of Russian Socialists, showing a six-level pyramid of social hierarchy under the tsars? From each level a kind of statement issues in Cyrillic script. At the top sit the tsar and tsarina ("We rule over you"). Beneath comes the imperial court ("We govern you") supported by the Church ("We deceive you"), then the army ("We shoot you"). Under them the new rich, the bourgeoisie, are found guzzling at table ("We eat for you"). At the bottom, bending under the weight of the entire edifice, peasants and industrial workers declare, "We work for you. We feed you." Unseen at the V&A stretches the barren emptiness of the real Russia, the serfs labouring on the steppes, scores of whom were sold off every year by the aristocracy to finance the opulent displays demanded by life at court.

The modern era began with Peter I (the Great), a zealous moderniser who banished beards as he embarked on a European tour of inspection in 1697. "And to do this," in the words of an early historian, "he created a Grand Embassy . . . which he himself accompanied incognito." But this "incognito" was not so easy. For one thing Peter was six feet seven inches tall (though as narrow all down as Don Quixote) - and for another the foreigners knew it. That he was travelling with a retinue of 250 including dwarfs, trumpeters and surgeons tended to give the game away when Peter reached the shipyards of England and Holland, or the Palace of Versailles. But then, the emperor having deprived himself of an heir by secretly having his own son executed, the throne passed, after a pause, to his grandson, only 11 years old, whose wardrobe is at the V&A. This included little full-skirted brocade jackets and the two pairs of stockings required to fill out spindly legs. After a hunting trip during which his 600 hounds bagged 4,000 hares, 50 foxes, five lynxes and three bears, the boy-tsar grew bored and was carried off by a chill and the smallpox.

Royal deaths were invariably good news for the bespoke tailors and dealers in fabrics. Each coronation ceremony - they always took place in Moscow; Catherine the Great's was worthy of Barnum & Bailey - signalled boom time. Every anointed monarch sported a new outfit that was then handed over to the Kremlin treasury, never to be worn again. Merchants returned from Lyons bringing the specified fabrics, cloth of silver, shimmering gold embroidery, large ornamental motifs interlaced with fantastical flowers and fruit. From the time of the highly intelligent - and therefore rapidly murdered - Paul I, emperors wore relatively austere bottle-green regimental uniforms for their coronations, but their retinues (guardsmen, heralds, postilions) were done up to the nines in medieval tabards of cloth of gold, musketeer-style red velvet hats with ostrich feathers . . . and more.

Here again, one yearns for a glimpse of the popular view, even the mythological one of Alexander I in the garb of a simple, wise old man of the people, shaking Napoleon out of his uniform to unmask him as a wolf. Less benign is the English cartoon depicting the repressive Nicholas I as a snarling bear dressed in extravagant military uniform, observing the hanging and flogging of chained Polish rebels and their women in 1830. A lighted cannon-taper in his claw, the tsar-bear declares: "Gentlemen, I know that you wish to address me; but to spare you from delivering a pack of lies, I desire that you hold your tongues." (The name of the current president of Russia, Medvedev, means "bear".)

According to eyewitness accounts, the court of Alexander I came to resemble a cross between a couturier's workshop and a soldiers' barracks, packed with lance corporals modelling uniforms, the emperor himself devoting hours to making chalk marks on coats and undergarments amid a litter of moustache brushes, button-polishing sticks and nostril-tweezers. Possibly the clothes this tsar wore are less interesting than his treatment of Alexander Pushkin, whom he exiled twice. Like leaders of the Byzantine and Holy Roman empires, the Romanovs found support in the Roman eagle with two heads. Practically everybody did. By the time the rulers of Europe confronted each other in 1914, the eagles' heads were pointing in all directions, as were the ubiquitous moustaches: "Your country needs you" (that is, needs to kill you).

In the meantime, inhabiting their fools' paradises, the aristocrats of Europe revelled in lavish fancy-dress parties and masquerades. In January 1903, 416 invitations were issued from St Petersburg. Ladies and gentlemen were to come in costumes from the time of Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich (father of Peter the Great and a believer in Old Rus). Fabulous Fabergé was to hand, selecting from the crown jewels an emerald as big as the palm of his hand to decorate the empress's robes.

This jamboree took place shortly before the Japanese sank practically the entire Russian fleet and two years before the revolution of 1905 and the Odessa Steps massacre. Fifteen years later the entire royal family, children included, was wiped out by a Bolshevik firing squad in Ekat erinburg. According to one account, the four daughters (the grand duchesses) wore protective bodices sewn with diamonds, which served only to increase their suffering and delay their deaths - but Madame Amelekhina, senior curator of the Imperial Dress Collections, assures me that the girls had no idea what fate was to befall them, and were merely using their undergarments as a treasury.

"The Magnificence of the Tsars" is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, until 29 March. For further details log on to:

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: What the world expects...

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.