Bulldozing Beijing

<strong>City of Heavenly Tranquillity: Beijing in the History of China</strong>

Jasper Becker <e

These are vertical times in Beijing. Starchitects, egged on by politicians and developers, are reaching for the skies. "Bigger, bolder, taller" has become the mantra not just for the likes of Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron, whose China Central Television headquarters building and "Bird's Nest" national stadium, respectively, draw in sightseers both local and international to swoon or sigh at their abrupt, bursting beauty, but for those planners eager to transform the Chinese capital into a version of Hong Kong or Manhattan. Modernity - and modernisation - is at stake: the skyline, as much as any diagram charting economic growth, must spike up.

What does Beijing risk losing through this form of urban restructuring? For both Michael Meyer and Jasper Becker, authors of new, important books on the subject, the answer is clear: memory, and a large chunk of its soul. Meyer, a young travel writer who hails from Minneapolis, centres his analysis around the fate of a traditional courtyard, or hutong, into which he moved exactly three years ago.

This hutong is no expat paradise. Meyer occupies two unheated, bare-bulbed rooms in a shared courtyard where the nearest toilet is a public latrine - "Four slits in the floor face one another, without dividers. A squatting man hacks up a wad of phlegm" - a few minutes' walk away. The narrow, sometimes muddy lanes outside are full of hawkers and pedlars, shoeshines, bicycle repairmen, old men drinking and gambling, gossiping grandmothers. Small shops sell bootleg DVDs and hair salons act as fronts for brothels. Arguments and family rows are hard to keep private: in this form of urban village, everyone knows each other.

The word "village" is critical. Not only is it a term routinely bandied about by property developers to add value to their often soulless condos and to offer the promise of a community that their own jobs require them to monetise and disrupt, but it speaks to why the hutongs have been patronised and punished by policymakers for many decades. Where there were 7,000 of these neighbourhoods in 1949, the year that Mao came to power and resolved that Beijing would become the industrial hub whose factories and production plants displaced long-term residents, in 2005 there were only 1,300.

At least 1.25 million residents were evicted between 1990 and 2007. Meyer's stay is haunted by a spectre: that of "The Hand", a corporate graffiti writer who, night after night, tags buildings with the Chinese chai sign that serves as an eviction notice. Residents are remunerated, but never at the market rate, for the land they formerly occupied, and are often forced to relocate to high-rise dwellings in satellite towns that have no transport links to the areas where they grew up.

Meyer, whose evocations of place and people at their best recall Richard Cobb's writings on raffish Paris, pays tribute to the local refuseniks who try to resist these enforced migrations, and to the handful of historians and activists who have tried to alert the world to this architectural devastation. The hutongs emerge as a Chinese version of the kind of urbanism advocated by Jane Jacobs 40 years ago when, against the brutal makeover of New York pushed through by the city's "master builder" Robert Moses, she spoke up for mixed-use communities, pedestrian- and bicycle- rather than car-focused, whose dyna mism sprang from their diversity and density.

For Jasper Becker, a former Beijing bureau chief for the South China Morning Post, the erasures that Meyer chronicles are, like those described in Iain Sinclair's London: City of Disappearances gazetteer, an attempt to void public consciousness of the existence of alternatives to the current metropolitan regime. He journeys to brothels, publishing houses and temples, many of them crumbling or forgotten by residents, which represent other, pluralistic Beijings.

In particular, and running counter to the common perception of the city as rather stiff and earnest next to jazzy, cosmopolitan Shanghai, he uses his discovery of the building that housed the country's first elected parliament to describe the early years of the Republic (1911-49), a time when universities were granted autonomy, a free press flourished, and customs such as foot-binding and concubinage were outlawed.

Becker is a pleasingly forthright writer with a wide frame of reference. He views what has happened over the past 20 years as an example of Sino-Haussmannisation, and also as a ruinous synthesis of Le Corbusier's desire to embrace "the mass production spirit" with an extension of Mao's abolition of the Four Olds - Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, Old Habits. Wandering around the hutongs of Beijing the other week, I wondered what had happened to the chai signs I'd seen when I was last there. A local told me: "There's nothing left here to demolish."

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Superpower swoop

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.