I should rococo


</strong>Ian Kelly

<em>Hodder & Stoughton, 403pp, £20</em>

The brand survives undamaged; even the sexual revisionists have failed to tarnish it. We, the consumers, make our own choice and Giacomo Casanova inspires loyalty. Leave him alone. The boy done good. Astonishing reach, too. Here is the Birmingham University Medical School yearbook 2008, filled with newly minted doctors. What a handsome, happy, diligent and optimistic lot they are. Makes you proud to be human. And here is Dr R Kassamali. Ten years from now, he wants to be "a surgeon in a random third world country, working for Médecins Sans Frontières". His favourite organ? "Liver." (A popular choice among medics.) How would Dr K like to be remembered? As "the one Asian guy the white girls actually fancied" (not my words). And there at the top of the entry is his nickname: "Kassanova".

Casanova would have been proud. Not just that his name has become an affectionate shorthand for a man who loved widely (and quite well), but that it should have crossed from the 18th to the 21st centuries, from Venice to Brum, from Europe to Asia, and, perhaps above all, that his name has alighted, punning, upon a doctor. Casanova, actor, spy, lover, priest, always wanted to be a medical man. That is where he felt his talents really lay, and - given his sharp and voracious intelligence (he was admitted as a Doctor of Laws at Padua aged only 17) - his lack of snobbery except when it came to his own image (when he would put on the dog like nobody's business), his tremendous sociability - unusually, in what was a primarily homosocial world, directed towards men and women alike, and his empathetic yet determined and resourceful nature would have made him a fine physician at a time when the scanty and largely ineffectual (or just plain mistaken) materia medica meant that the most potent thing a doctor could prescribe was himself. Hard to imagine any sickbed not being cheered by the arrival of Casanova.

But using his name as a shorthand for a devout and cheerfully promiscuous lover (in all senses) of women draws us away from the truth. As Ian Kelly's delectable biography makes entirely clear, his sexual adventuring was neither particularly egregious (though he was egregiously good at it) nor particularly predatory (though he did on one occasion offer his membrum virile as the most effective means of delivering an abortifacient).

It wasn't so much that Casanova constructed his world in order to get sex; it was more that the world in which he swam was exuberant, libertine, affective and demonstrative, so sex naturally became one of its great recourses. Looking upon him as some fantastical, driven knobhound has been one of cultural history's larger errors. I am reminded of the late Jeffrey Bernard, who was taken by a friend to see Tosca. Back at the Groucho Club after the show, Jeff was pensive for a while, then said: "You know, I think everyone's rather unfair. I don't think that Scarpia was a bad chap at all. I think he was just a bit cunt-struck."

You could say the same for Casanova. But we have allowed it to overshadow his life, and Kelly does a marvellous - and brilliantly unobtrusive - job of redressing the balance. The subtly witty index offers a précis. Careers? "In the church; diplomatic; in espionage; as fake occultist; fiscal; as gentleman of leisure; for the Inquisition; journalistic; as librarian at Dux castle; military; musical; as secretary to Venetian ambassador in Vienna; silk industry claims." Character? "Compulsion to seduce virgins; depression; final moodiness; frustration and embitterment in Venice; humour; love of performing; opinion in Poland; portrait by de Ligne of his unhappiness in old age; portrayed in Chiari's fiction; positivity in prison; Venetian Inquisition's view of; wit."

Here we have indexed his duels, fatherhood, gambling, illnesses ("childhood nosebleeds") and influences, oddly brief - "the Enlightenment; the theatre; Venice" - but, equally oddly, all we need to know. It may seem otiose to quote from the index, but a good one acts as a sort of metatext both to the book itself and to the reality the book projects; and if you wanted to give a writer or a God the recipe to produce a Casanova, you could hardly do better than the Enlightenment; the theatre; Venice. Go on to read the next entry (life events and periods), and it will become unthinkable that you will not buy the book there and then.

Like Kelly's previous biography of George "Beau" Brummell, Casanova is a treasure-house of life; in this case, as he says, "life in which a paradise in heaven did not preclude the cultivation of earthly paradises for as long or as little as we might be allowed to enjoy them, alive to the realities of art and joy in artifice for those last generations before the Romantics told the world that truth was in Nature and feeling was more vital than style, sentiment or sex".

How we should hate those humourless Romantics with their self-obsession and their awful bloody Nature. Yet how much would we have given to be there at the meeting between Casa nova and Rousseau or, indeed, between Casa nova and the great arse-licker himself, James Boswell. How we would have liked to be in Ismail's gazebo in Constantinople, the two chaps peeping and frotting at Ismail's prearranged tableau of naked, splashing concubines until, overcome, Casanova had to bugger Ismail and then "had to submit to his taking turnabout. It would have been impolite to refuse; I should have shown myself ungrateful, a thing that is not in my nature." How one would have wanted to be present when Casanova was rescued from jumping off the newly built Westminster Bridge by the extravagantly named Sir Wellbore Ellis Agar, who declared that what Casanova needed was "a drink, a woman, beef and Yorkshire pudding". How one would have loved to be there when Frederick the Great mistook Casanova for an hydraulician, and Casanova thought he would have to go along with it and pitch for work. How . . . how endless the list is.

Kelly has set himself a hell of a task. How do you write the life of a man whose life you are writing because he's famous for having written his memoirs? The answer is deceptively simple: use the memoirs as a map to guide you back to the life, and see what emerges. The effect is as though we had gone round the back after the show. Here is Casanova himself, without the make-up and the trick lighting, talking through Kelly's subtle, reticent voice. We can never get away from intertextualism. Kelly's narrative is enacted against the backdrop of half-remembered, half-imagined passages from Casanova's self-soothing memoirs, composed in damp, philistine Bohemia in his knackered, skint old age: the laughter of women, the choirs of Venetian virgins, the drone of the oligarchs, the creak of the Schlafwagen - giant, fur-lined horse-drawn beds on wheels - through the forests, the splashing and giggling as once again he is thrown into a canal to gain access or make his escape.

But these are stage effects. From the murky water of Kelly's deceptively sober prose (any writer who can refer to a "cavalcade of internationalists" commands instant respect as a stylist of some wit), something emerges, scales the leads, opens the bedroom door, moves closer, smiles. It is Casanova. It's good old Jack Newhouse. He's alive. He's alive!

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession

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.