Sir Vidia's Shadow

Paul Theroux <em>Hamish Hamilton, 384pp, £17.99</em>

"Right," I pompously proclaimed to my wife after lunch today, "I shall repair to my study to write that review of Theroux's book, Sir Vidia's Shadow."

"What?" She was bemused. "I can't believe you haven't long since given up on that, it came out ages ago."

"That's as may be - but I'm not interested in what this book means at an ephemeral level, I'm interested in the timeless questions that it raises about friendship, writing, autobiography." She looked at me with something approaching infinite pity as I quit the room.

In truth, the reason this review is so long delayed has nothing to do with procrastination (I bagged the book from the NS books desk the minute it came in and read it within hours). Most serious writers I know completely abjure literary biography - almost as an article of faith. "Oh, I never read the stuff," says Famous Novelist A, who is considering presenting a television series on 20th- century fiction. "Do you?" Do I? Of course I bloody do, and so do you, you hypocrite - to the writer, literary biography is flat-out porn. Wank material. There is nothing more enjoyable for someone locked up in the solitary confinement of a career in letters than to read of someone in the past in the same predicament.

Also, writers like to pretend that their lives are extremely boring. "Oh, I just sit at my desk and write," moans Famous Novelist A, "there's nothing more to my life." Bollocks. The truth is that while the money may not be great, the hours are infinitely flexible. Sexual escapades, moonlighting as a spy, exotic intoxicants - all can be found time for. Naturally, a literary biography that concentrates too much on its subject's writing will tend to be dull, but the best biographers stick to sex and quarrels (something else that writers have ample time for).

Not that Theroux's book is strictly speaking a literary biography; indeed, it's hard to know what sort of book it is at all. I think it should be more properly described as a suicide note for two reputations. Here's the storyline. Uganda, early 1960s, the young Theroux meets the prematurely middle-aged V S Naipaul, already a successful writer. They become friends. Naipaul is a mentor, nurturing Theroux's talent; Theroux is an acolyte, burnishing his mentor's sense of literary mission. Thirty-odd years pass, during which the two men write books, live in different countries, marry, have affairs, write letters and occasionally meet for unpleasant social gatherings. Eventually Naipaul's long-suffering wife dies and he remarries. The new wife takes a dislike to Theroux and Naipaul drops him as a friend.

That's it. Big deal, you're tempted to say - and I would agree. To sit down and write a 356-page book about all this seems all of the following: a) gratuitous; b) petty; c) meretricious; d) dishonourable. And the book that's resulted is all of these and more. The nicest, most symmetrical irony in all this is that as Theroux showers more and more vilification and abuse on the head of the man who's snubbed him, we come to realise that really they deserve each other. I mean, what kind of an idiot sticks around to be friends with a man like Naipaul, who by Theroux's own account is ungenerous, cold, ludicrously arrogant, snobbish beyond belief, sadistic and - as far as I could make out - quite devoid of humour? I'd sooner spend an hour sandpapering my genitals than conversing with Naipaul - whether he's the world's greatest novelist or not.

It's a commonplace of writers as well to moan about their works being regarded as an outgrowth of the individual. And it's true, that not knowing the writer personally, the average critic's personal remarks are wholly unwarranted. But we do know Theroux - at least we have a wide selection of his memoirs, quasi-memoirs and thinly fictionalised memoirs. And now, through his good offices, we know Naipaul as well. Interestingly, it is Theroux who emerges as the worse man, but the better writer.

I don't mean worse man overall - how could I possibly know that? And I certainly don't mean "not nice" (what could be more trivial?). Rather, I simply mean that through this one, intensely dishonourable act, he ends up dishonouring himself. His oeuvre, on the other hand, remains exactly as it was: interesting, vigorous, at times entertaining, upper-middlebrow novels and travel writing. Nothing can detract from that. Naipaul's works, on the other hand, are retroactively rendered - through the agency of this helpful manual - stale, otiose, affectless and, frankly, irrelevant. Don't get me wrong - I've read most of them. I thought A House for Mr Biswas a masterpiece when I read it - but then I was 14.

I read others as well, at least five, although I won't burden you with the titles. But then there were the books on India, and the books on Africa, which revealed their author's consuming bigotry, intolerance and racism. And then there was The Enigma of Arrival, a novel which was exactly concomitant with the ludicrous spectacle of its author - the Brahmin, Trinidadian son of an unsuccessful journalist - attempting to insinuate himself into the back passage of the English establishment. One sublimely politically incorrect friend of mine suggested it should have been called "Coon in Wiltshire".

As I grew to appreciate, more and more, the narrowness and the lack of sympathy which informed the character of the author, so I came to admire the works - and I mean all the works - far less, if at all. By the time I read Among the Believers, I was among the complete disbelievers; Sir Vidia was the Great Sham. Even Biswas now appears to me to be a consummate copy of a 19th-century naturalistic novel, rather than anything interesting in its own right.

Theroux does us the favour of explaining how Naipaul's talent auto-destructed - he eschewed literary style, he didn't read enough, or with enough sympathy. The question of why Theroux should have written this suicide note for his own reputation is more difficult to analyse, but perhaps a clue lies in an exchange he has with one of his sons, which he reports towards the end of the book. Apropos of Theroux's agonising over Naipaul's snub, Theroux Jnr says: "But Dad, you always say you don't have any friends."

Well, he was down to one . . . and now?

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

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.