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Operation Snakebite

Few institutions have suffered more under the Blair and Brown governments than the British army, its reputation tarnished as a direct result of the refusal to send sufficient numbers of troops first to Iraq and more recently to Afghanistan.

The complacency that still bedevils the approach to the Afghan campaign is succinctly described at the start of Stephen Grey’s revealing new book Operation Snakebite.

It is the late summer of 2007 and Brigadier ­Andrew Mackay, the next UK commander in Helmand, is touring Whitehall, talking to those supposedly in the know. Struck by the negative response to his questions, he asks one general if anyone actually wants to succeed.

The general replies that Britain has three options – provide enough troops to do the job properly, muddle through or get out – but that it will inevitably pursue the second, “constant muddling through, making it up as we go along”.

Sadly, Grey’s book only serves to prove his point.

Operation Snakebite is an exceptional piece of reportage, in which Grey uses a single battle, the December 2007 operation to recapture the northern Helmand town of Musa Qala, to show the utter mess that resulted from the decision just to “muddle through”.

In a roller-coaster style reminiscent of those fast-paced US crime dramas where the camera jerks about following every move, we are introduced to people involved at every level of the operation. We see the vacillating, ineffectual Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, telling the British ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, that recapturing Musa Qala is vital to help a top Taliban commander who wants to defect.

And we are spectators at a succession of bloody battles with the Taliban involving British and US troops.

The Americans ignore Brigadier Mackay’s insistence they should not call in airstrikes that might destroy Musa Qala and ­antagonise the local people – a US colonel ­denounces this as “a crazy idea”.

If anyone among this sorry mix of brutal violence and farce is Grey’s protagonist, it is Sergeant Lee “Jonno” Johnson, a British infantryman mentoring Afghan troops. When his Afghans run out of ammunition while surrounded by Taliban, he makes a mad dash under fire to get more. On the eve of the battle he is seen reinforcing the seat in his Vector vehicle with Kevlar plates to rectify a design fault that leaves the commander and driver exceptionally vulnerable to roadside bombs or mines.

Jonno writes an email to his fiancée explaining what she should do if he doesn’t come back, and the scene is set. We already know, and more to the point, somehow, so does he, that Jonno isn’t coming back.

As they advance on Musa Qala, his vehicle hits a mine. The blast amputates his legs, killing him instantly.

Ironically, it is probably a bomb dropped on a Taliban command post on the orders of the dissenting US colonel that ends the insurgents’ resistance, allowing the US, British and Afghan troops to take Musa Qala.

But it is not the only bomb dropped.

A week later, in a nearby village, British soldiers find the decomposing bodies of a number of women and children in a compound destroyed by an allied bomb. And at the end of it all we discover that Karzai’s “top Taliban commander” who started it all isn’t a top commander at all, just a rare Karzai supporter.

On his return to the UK, generals line up to tell Grey what has gone wrong, principally that they have too few troops and that reconstruction designed to win over the local people never happened because the Foreign Office and DfID didn’t bother turning up.

An indignant Foreign Office bureaucrat says it’s “no good complaining the civilians aren’t there with you if they haven’t been involved from the outset”, as if somehow no one bothered telling them Britain was sending troops into Helmand.

As for the government’s failure to send enough troops, Gordon Brown was at it again the other week, telling MPs he was dispatching a paltry 700 more to Afghanistan temporarily to cover the elections. But the repeated pleas from commanders on the ground for an additional 3,500 troops will go unanswered.

Britain won’t be taking part in Barack Obama’s Afghan surge.

It is tempting to blame the politicians for everything, but senior officers cannot escape censure either.

Telling Grey they haven’t got enough men might seem candid but it really isn’t good enough. The lack of troops puts both the operation and their own men in danger, and if they can’t get the politicians to accept that, they should resign.

At one point in Operation Snakebite, a Taliban commander claims to dislike killing British troops. “It is their leaders, the politicians and the generals that I would like in the sights of
my gun,” he says.

By the time you’ve finished reading this book, you will probably think he has a point.

Michael Smith is defence correspondent of the Sunday Times and the author of “Killer Elite” (Weidenfeld and Nicolson)

Operation Snakebite
Stephen Grey
Viking, 368pp, £16.99

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.