Enthralling flatness


Daren King

<em>Faber & Faber, 240pp, £10.99</em>

So, what to make of Daren King? It appears obvious. His extraordinary debut novel, Boxy an Star, told of two fourth-generation Ecstasy abusers. It was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award and only narrowly missed out on the Booker shortlist. Writing in the Guardian, Nicholas Blincoe said that the language of the book was "unsettlingly juvenile" and the effect was like "skateboarding around an abyss". Of his second novel, the absurdist provocation Jim Giraffe, Ali Smith wrote: "It's an unshockable, cynical book, and at the same time a peculiarly innocent one . . . The hopelessness and the hilarity are equal, and connected."

And so a theme develops. These observations could equally apply to King's latest adult novel, Manual. It is the story of two workers in the fetish industry, Michael and Patsy - a "confused woman" - who provide services for men in suits. A typical punter is described by Michael as "bilingual, multilingual and yet he cannot tell us what he wants". One such is a banker, Edward, who pays the pair to accompany him on his outings with the object of his obsession, the 15-year-old Baby Girl.

They meet in a succession of bars and hotels that are literally characterless, but desired none theless. This is a world of fetishism as both deviance and allegory:

The bar is modern. Square stools, square lights.

The bar is called Box.

There are men in suits. I have never worn a suit. I wear trainers, jeans.

At the scrubbed wood table, Patsy sings.

I look at the clock. The clock is above the bar. On the clock, information.

We wait for Edward.

Then later:

"We should not have met here," Edward says. "My colleagues drink here."

"We are your colleagues," I say.

Edward thinks that this is a joke. It is not a joke.

There is repetition in the writing and this builds up a terrible momentum. Both Michael and Patsy are damaged, unable to function within the confines of conventional society, and King makes us fear for their well-being. We are told repeatedly that "in Patsy's world, everything is true". She dotes on a stuffed toy that is very much alive, yet even the author's absurdist touches do not assuage the feeling of dread. Even so, the book is funny, too: "At the counter I buy a can of Coke. The cafe is called Demur. The name is odd. The cafe is in Shoreditch. In Shoreditch, the name is not odd."

With Manual, King continues to demonstrate the originality that characterised his previous three novels. The idiom he employs is technically high-end. He does an awful lot with not very much. Despite the flatness of the prose, he is playing a game. Writing in this childlike style about people on the edge of society, living in the hinterland between what is real and imagined, he toys with our perception of infantilism.

And yet it's not as simple as that. I have to say that, much as I enjoyed Boxy an Star - to the extent that I was happy enough overlooking the indulgences of Jim Giraffe - I tried hard not to like this book. Quite early in the piece, the thought occurred that King's shtick - the way in which he uses language to distance himself from the mainstream of our culture - was a defence mechanism; if he got too close, we'd see he had nothing much to say, or at least much that mattered. After all, it's easier to stay on the edge, to point at the darkness of the abyss while skateboarding around it, than it is to jump in, lights ablaze. At times it seemed as though the game he was playing - all winking and anomie - was tired. I told myself that although he does an awful lot with not very much, by now - four novels in - he should be giving us more than this consistently anti-intellectual exploration of the periphery and the arch presumption that this is all we need from our novels.

But . . . it was never going to happen. I loved this book. Daren King may not be a writer who tries to make recognisably profound sense of things. His books may not give us what we should be demanding of the novel in these most brazenly interesting times, or worse, what we would like to expect. What they do is enthral and confound and leave us in wonder. With Manual, he has reached the zenith of his craft; by the end of the book I had been enthralled anew by this wonderful, confounded writer.

So, what to make of Daren King? He's too damned good at doing just enough.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Money rules: Why cash now counts more than class

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.