Try Me

High on her own hype

In 2002 Indobrit, a quarterly magazine for British Asians, was launched at the Cinnamon Club in Westminster. London's media world turned out to celebrate with 35-year-old Farah Damji, the editor. But what should have cemented Damji's return to London after almost a decade in New York was short-lived. Three years later, and ten pages on in her woefully titled autobiography, Try Me, Damji was in detention at Holloway Prison. She had been sentenced to three years in jail for fraud and perverting the course of justice. ''The truth is nothing more than a previously agreed upon set of lies,'' she writes, quoting from the Desperate Housewives voice-over to explain her predicament.

Born in 1960s Kampala, Damji was brought up by her ayah. Her parents were "blurs", and she formed an early attachment to her grand­father, a former adviser to the first Obote government. Following an abortive kidnapping in 1970, her family fled to England and, stripped of its wealth ("We had lived like make-believe maharajas in a land we couldn't call our own"), started again in a semi on Ealing Common. When her grandfather went into hospital for a check-up and died, her childhood ended. "The monochrome seeped from the sky into my lungs. England became home."

Try Me is an occasionally harrowing but, above all, angry account of a charmed and troubled life. Wanting for nothing (her father became a property tycoon), Damji was a King's Road schoolgirl, attending the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in South Kensington against the backdrop of 1985's Live Aid and hanging out at Annabel's. At her father's insistence, she applied to study law at University College London and was offered a place. One can only speculate on her success as a barrister had she turned her intelligence and talent for condescension to better use. Instead, desperate to flee her family and its expectations, she headed for New York on the pretext of studying French and art history at NYU.

New York provided the perfect home for Damji's reckless and addictive personality. She made an easy transition from going to clubs and gallery openings to working for a drug dealer, Michael Rubin, "a nice Jewish boy". Impressed by her cut-glass vowels, he gave her a job running his escort agency. "I was given a percentage of every call I booked and a cut of the takings." Adopting an uptown uniform of Chanel suits and long, glossy hair maintained by the stylist-to-the-stars Oribe, Damji "looked more like a banker than a whoremonger".

Here lies the paradox of Damji's life - and book. Her sense of self is entirely out of kilter with her actions. Intent on trying to outsmart the men, she launched herself into the worlds of the mafiosi, ruthless art dealers and "handsome and dangerous" City boys. She proved adept at making professional gain from personal risk.

She landed a job with Parish-Hadley, the interior decorators responsible for redoing the White House for Jackie Kennedy, mastered it, then moved on to the art world, opening her own gallery. What eluded her was a much-sought-after sense of achievement or belonging. "Part of being an exile is living on empty dreams," she writes, and curses the fantasy of flight.

If there is a general theme running through this book it is the rejection of the female British Asian archetype, and Damji's desire to make her father suffer for his domination and infidelities. Her chronicles of New York when, as a federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani was chasing the Mob boss John Gotti, and the art world was bloated with Wall Street cash - a world familiar from Jay McInerney's novels - are thrilling in their detail: "Princess Caroline wore the same outfit to meet the Pope that day as she did that night at Xenon, a black leather blazer, white blouse with a black velvet tie."
It is a shame that the rest of the book is used to avenge the men who betrayed her and to collude in her own hype. "My truth [has] been mythologised," she writes. I would challenge this; certainly no one I know has heard of Damji. I would also question the merit of a book that seeks to apportion blame. Men exposed for similar crimes are exalted for their daring and reinvent themselves accordingly, while gender stereotypes condemn women. Perhaps this is wrong. Yet I left Try Me feeling disturbed, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

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.