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The Winter Vault

Ian McEwan was once asked if a paragraph in one of his novels, which describes a neurosurgeon performing an operation, was really about writing. It was.

“The dream . . . that we all have,” McEwan said, “is to write this beautiful paragraph that is actually describing something but at the same time, in another voice, is writing a commentary on its own creation, without having to be a story about a writer.” There is a passage in Anne Michaels’ new novel, the belated follow-up to her astonishingly successful 1997 debut, Fugitive Pieces, that achieves a comparable self-reflexive effect.

Avery Escher, a civil engineer, is telling his wife Jean that when he looks at a building, it’s as if he is able to discern in it the “mind” of the architect. He describes the way the contours of a man’s mind seem to him to be disclosed in a thousand tiny details – the positioning of a door, say, or the height of a window. “Sometimes it seems as if the architect had full knowledge of these details in his design . . . as if [he] had anticipated every minute effect of weather, and of weather on memory, every combination of atmosphere, wind, and temperature . . .”

Similar thoughts come to mind when reading The Winter Vault. Although the prose in the novel has the same quality of crystalline exactness that reviewers of Fugitive Pieces fell over themselves to call “poetic”, the book’s most striking feature is, in fact, its architecture or design – the “mind” of its author can be discerned in its carefully orchestrated resonances, its stealthy anticipations and prolepses.

Michaels said in a recent interview that fiction is “expansive: it offers a way of layering things”, and The Winter Vault is certainly a miracle of layering or patterning.

Which is not to say, however, that the novel’s effects are merely cumulative. On the contrary, it is full of arresting incidental detail and imagery.

In one especially memorable scene, Avery and Jean are walking along the banks of the St Lawrence River in Canada, on land that has been inundated by the navigation of the St Lawrence Seaway and now lies partially under water. Jean feels a “cold shape” brush against her leg. It is a dead mole, one of hundreds that drowned when their tunnels were swamped. The corpse is a relic of lost terrain.

Taking the vicissitudes of Jean and Amery’s marriage as her guiding thread, Michaels knits together the story of the St Lawrence Seaway, and the villages and habitats it claims (entire houses standing in the way of the navigation are uprooted and relocated by a gargantuan machine called the “Hartshorne House Mover”), with accounts of the reconstruction of the Great Temple at Abu Simbel in Egypt, necessitated by the building of the Aswan Dam, and the sacking of Warsaw in the Second World War and the subsequent construction of a replica or facsimile of the city’s old centre.

The novel opens in 1964, in the Nubian Desert in southern Egypt. Avery is surveying a scene of “ghastly devastation” that will be echoed in the remains of lost villages along the St Lawrence revealed by the autumnal “shallows” and later in the ruins of Warsaw.

The body parts “strewn at hideous angles” at Avery’s feet belong to the statue of Ramses that adorns the Great Temple. It’s his job to dismantle the temple and reconstruct it at a safe distance from the waters of the redirected Nile.

Avery is tormented by the thought that successful completion of the project would involve a kind of betrayal – the perfection of an “illusion”.

This theme is reiterated throughout the novel: first, in a flashback where a woman is so unnerved by having her house deposited miles from where it once stood that she drops a cherished family heirloom that had survived transportation on the Hartshorne House Mover; and much later, when the Polish artist who will become Jean’s lover remembers the excitement of the inhabitants of Warsaw at the rebuilding of the Old Town. “Who is to say,” he asks, “that the rebuilt city was worth less than the original?”

For Jean, who remembers Avery’s torment by the Nile, the rebuilding is a “false consolation”, a substitute for proper commemoration of what was lost when the Nazis flattened the Polish capital.

Jean’s scepticism makes her the novel’s moral centre, the repository of an unsparing, unconsoled vision of grief and loss. She is a veteran of abandonment: by the time she meets Avery both her parents are dead. “My life,” she tells Avery’s mother later, “[is] formed around an absence.”

The same might be said of the novel itself. It is formed around multiple disappearances – of the villages of Nubia claimed by the “strangled” Nile, of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto and of Jean and Amery’s daughter, who is stillborn in a Cairo hospital.

At one point, Avery, who wants to be an architect not an engineer, dreams of making buildings that are “frank and spare, without irony; capable simply of both ­sorrow and solace”. His creator has written a ­remarkable book with exactly those qualities.

Jonathan Derbyshire is the New Statesman’s culture editor

The Winter Vault
Anne Michaels
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £16.99

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom

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.