The Secret Life of France

Every season brings its load of new books about France and the French, freshly baked by British or American expatriates who have taken a decade or two to understand what makes this country and its people so different from Britain and the British, the US and the Americans. Most such accounts get lost in the stack of brash, stereotypical covers emblazoned with berets, naked breasts or the Eiffel Tower wrapped in bleu, blanc, rouge. Very few make a lasting impression on readers, who usually regret these purchases, made in a hurry at St Pancras or the Gare du Nord on the way to a romantic weekend.

There are exceptions, however. For example, the New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik wrote Paris to the Moon, a moving and insightful account of his few years as Paris correspondent, and in a lighter, fictional vein, Stephen Clarke made an impact with his witty study of French life, A Year in the Merde. This summer brings a delightful and illuminating book about France by the novelist Lucy Wadham.

Having lived in France for the past 26 years, Wadham interweaves her personal story – marriage at 19 to a Parisian from the haute bourgeoisie, four children and then divorce – with a sociological study of the historical and cultural differences between the French and the English. Arriving in France young, Wadham dived into French life with all the zeal of the newly converted. Her embrace of her adoptive country was as passionate as her love affair with her irresistible husband. Being transplanted in this way was often traumatic for her, but although she was frequently bruised by cultural differences, she never stopped trying to understand what lay beneath such misunderstandings.

Readers should not be put off by the first chapter of The Secret Life of France, which opens with the smell of dog shit and urine, and a horrified recollection of people dunking their toast in their breakfast coffee. They should also pass quickly over the inevitable account of sex à la française and the tyranny of the pursuit of Pleasure over Truth – you will have heard this all before. It is dismaying to think that Wadham had to appease her publisher with such clichés. By the third chapter, however, these flaws are a distant memory.

Discussing the French obsession with and veneration of physical beauty, Wadham stresses a point often missed by visitors to France. “For the French,” she writes, “beauty does not reside exclusively in the past. It is a living, breathing, endlessly mutating deity. They’re not afraid of modernity, as long as it is beautiful: the TGV is fast but above all beautiful; the glass pyramid of Le Louvre was highly contested at the time yet so beautiful in its transparent purity.”

On relations between men and women in France, she observes that the absence of “sisterhood” in France meant that “in losing one thing I had found another. I learned that the extra­ordinary friendships I had known in Britain were part of a wider landscape, itself not so pretty – a landscaped ravaged by a low-level and persistent war between the sexes. The absence of gender conflict in France has become a source of relief to me. There is no tradition of gender segregation in France because men enjoy the company of women.”

Wadham cleverly uses all sorts of topical examples to illustrate her arguments. For instance, she says at first she couldn’t understand attitudes across the Channel towards Zinédine Zidane’s headbutt in the 2006 World Cup Final. Considered plain silly in England, it was reported in France as sublime. “The key is not winning, nor is it, as our Protestant mythology likes to claim, the joy of simply participating. France loves men like Zidane for their commitment, their virtuosity and their panache, not for their success. Traits like rigour, reserve and resilience are begrudgingly admired but not championed.”

Wadham seems to have spent her time in France in a more or less permanent state of bewilderment. Her experience of giving birth there and of educating her children in the French system provides some of the best material. The British emphasis on breastfeeding is met with incomprehension in France, where three months is considered more than enough. Wadham recalls the choice of her friend Magali, who chose not to breastfeed any of her three children. “She once explained to me that her breasts were her best feature and that she didn’t want to risk damaging them. At the time, her remark had struck me as selfish – immoral even – but Magali was clearly a devoted mother and her choice was a happy, guilt-free one that has been beneficial to her sexual fulfilment and, by extension, to her whole family.”

Wadham writes well, with effortless wit and keen intelligence, and knows when to draw from Napoleon’s private correspondence, or the plays of Victor Hugo, in order to support some well-turned observation or other. The Secret Life of France ought to be this summer’s Franco-British success.

The Secret Life of France
Lucy Wadham
Faber & Faber, 288pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, HOWZAT!

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

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.