Comedy update

Private Eye at the V&A, the Onion's UK arrival and Atkinson hints at Blackadder 5.

Satire news

Private Eye at 50 exhibition at the V&A

In celebration of 50 years of Private Eye, this free exhibition will look at how the British magazine combines humour with investigative journalism. It will include original artwork of the publication's finest cartoons, from long-running strips to caricatures. Plus, the magazine's editor Ian Hislop has selected 50 of the best front covers, one for every year that the magazine has been published.

At its best Private Eye is bold and scathingly satirical. Take the 4 February 2011 cover on the phone hacking scandal, where "Murdoch answers critics" with his hands clasped: "I overhear what you're saying." Another outstanding cover was that of 22 July 2011. It used the tabloids' conventional style to triumphantly bellow "Gotcha!" over photographs of Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks.

The Onion News Network's UK debut

The Onion News Network will have its UK television premiere in November on Sky Arts 1 at 11pm. The mock-news channel was created in 2007 and shown on the Onion's website. Its presenters include Brooke Alvarez (Suzanne Sena) and Tucker Hope Todd (Alan Crain.) The news programme often features personal advice by Alvarez, such as "How to Look Good for the End of the World."

Founded in the late 1980s, the Onion's humour ranges from straight-up satire, such as "Future U.S. History Students: 'It's Pretty Embarrassing How Long You Guys Took To Legalize Gay Marriage'" to more wacky and surreal jokes: "Justin Bieber Found to be Cleverly Disguised 51-Year-Old Paedophile."

One of the Onion's often provocative headlines recently caused a stir on Twitter. It tweeted, "BREAKING: Witnesses reporting screams and gunfire heard inside Capitol building", which was later linked to this story: Congress Takes Group Of Schoolchildren Hostage. It led some followers to believe that it was a real news story, and controversy ensued about whether the Onion had gone too far. Andy Carvin, Senior Strategist of Social Media Desk, who tweeted extensively about the Arab Spring, sounded aggravated. He tweeted: "Wondering if NYers would find it as funny if @TheOnion had made a similar joke about an attack on Wall St and lower Manhattan." By contrast, English comedian and actor Peter Serafinowicz tweeted: "God I love @theonion!"

The Onion's hostage piece clearly had an absurdist tone:

Obama, holding his head in his hands [said] "I know Speaker Boehner personally, and I know that he and his colleagues will not hesitate for a second to kill these poor children if they don't get their way ... Trust me, this Congress will do it".

New television comedy

Rowan Atkinson hints at Blackadder 5

Rowan Atkinson, star of Mr Bean and Not the Nine O'Clock News, has said that there may be a fifth series of Blackadder. With each of its four series set in a different historical context, the sitcom ran between 1983 and 1989. This exciting prospect was raised during Atkinson's chat with ITV's Daybreak about his role in Johnny English Reborn, a spoof spy film.

If the fifth series does happen, it will be interesting to see whether Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Tony Robinson and Miranda Richardson will star again. Atkinson commented: "It would be nice to get them all back together."

Arrested Development back with 4th season

Fans of the Emmy-award winning American sitcom Arrested Development have reason to celebrate; five years since it was last on our screens, its creator Mitchell Hurwitz has announced plans for a new series to precede the film spin-off. The sitcom focuses on the life of the formerly rich Bluth family.The cast includes Jessica Walter, Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi and Michael Cera. Although the sitcom never achieved especially high ratings, it has a devoted fanbase.

Life's Too Short: Gervais and Merchant's new comedy about a dwarf

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, Life's Too Short is a fake documentary about the daily life of actor Warwick Davis
(Return Of The Jedi, Harry Potter.) In the new six-part series scheduled to air this autumn, Davis plays a fictional version of himself, a self-absorbed and underhand character in charge of a talent agency called Dwarves For Hire. Davis is always trying to take advantage of others, including his own clients. The show's premise is that Davis takes part in the documentary to raise money to pay his taxes. Check out some clips of Life's Too Short here.

The Bleak Old Shop of Stuff: Robert Webb stars in Dickensian comedy

Gareth Edwards, producer of That Mitchell and Webb Look and Mark Evans, writer of the Radio 4 comedy Bleak Expectations, are creating a four-part comedy set in Victorian London. Robert Webb is leading the cast as Jedrington Secret-Past, a successful seller of eccentricities. His wife Conceptiva will be played by Katherine Parkinson (The IT Crowd.) The Dickensian comedy adventure will screen first in a Christmas special, followed by three episodes due to air in early 2012.

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.