Planet organic

The Kilter theatre company puts down roots on an allotment in Bear Flats, Bath.

The Bloomfield allotments in Bear Flats, Bath are the site of Kilter theatre company's latest outdoor "tale of love and vegetables", an examination of our relationship with food as we move towards post-oil times. I wondered what sort of a place it was. "Nappy Valley," answered my companion crisply.

Perhaps, then, Kilter was preaching to the card-carrying converted -- the yummy mummies on-message with organics who try to avoid air-freighting baby's beans. After all, an allotment is the ultimate suburban fantasy of zero-food-miles self-sufficiency -- as long as you can top it up with an Ocado shop.

It did look a little like a Boden photo shoot as the audience of mainly women gathered. (Horses or dogs? "Both!") This was fertile ground indeed for Kilter's seeds of polemic. But the show, Roots Replanted, was a revelation in this setting. It's the only performance I can think of where actors were in danger of being upstaged by fruit and veg.

It was a far cry from my patch at home: the killing fields for all but the toughest of brassicas. Gourds were positively bursting out of the soil around us and apples pendulous in the trees above. My companion, a chef and an allotment holder to boot, was at times more seduced by the produce than the production ("divine kohlrabi!").

This charming promenade embeds itself in the locale, so characters' names are taken from nearby streets, and ideas grown from local workshops, or "tea parties" in the pre-Palin sense of the word. The set, such as it is, is put together from bits of old tat found on-site, and locals have contributed an audio record of food-memories, and written notes on childhood cooking: cockle soup on holiday in France; damper bread made by Scouts in the 1950s; a disastrous "mirenge" (sic).

Local history is carefully woven into the experience, and at one point we stood in the crater made by the "Baedeker" raids -- the Luftwaffe's attempt to pulverise Bath's Georgian heritage. This, we learn, was apparently part of the master plan to blow up all the English cities given three stars by the German guidebook. Just as poignant were the huge horse chestnut trees framing another scene, which were victims of the Greek leaf-miner moth carrying out its own Blitzkrieg along the M4 corridor: living, or perhaps dying, proof of some of Kilter's eco-themes.

The actors Caroline Garland and Claire Wyatt plait together a tale from Fifties Austerity Britain with a 2060s story of re-engagement with the land, post "Food Riots" and "Protein Poisoning". They are assisted by a multi-tasking Olly Langdon, horribly irritating as the schlock jock Peter Local, marvellously slack-jawed as the future's Adam, who slyly scrumps apples, of course.

Audience members are both the children of Beatrice in the Fifties (and as such liable to cleanliness spot-checks) and the elders of Robin, born in 2031 and product of the Wal-Mart education system. Whereas Bea, with her fantastically vivid lipstick and floral pinny, is sick of the "make do and mend" philosophy, and inclines towards the shiny new toys and fast food from across the Atlantic, her Estuarine descendant, from the age of solar cinema and community ovens, reconnects with the land and discovers her roots -- and not just her genealogical ones.

Kilter's entire project is to be carbon-audited. Estimates put the carbon emissions of London's theatres alone at 50,000 tonnes a year, though in recent times there have been concerted efforts in some quarters to limit this: the Arcola theatre, in particular, has been pioneering hydrogen-fuel-cell lighting, Southwark's temporary Jellyfish is an entirely recycled theatre, and many others are inhabiting recycled spaces.

Few, however, could compete with the model of sustainability offered by Kilter. The windpower used for its limited light and sound is generated on-site, the set and props are salvaged, and the thinking behind the small tour is to minimise the travelling done by the audience.

There were, perhaps, issues left unaddressed, not least of which is what happens to the Kenyan bean farmer when we buy local or grow our own. And the backbreaking work familiar to anyone who's ever grubbed around in a kitchen garden is glossed over.

But Kilter is really about the seeding of ideas; we each took home a potted-up damson stone, a tiny metaphor for this hopeful planting. Perhaps, if I keep it away from my own deadly vegetable patch, it might even bear fruit.

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.