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The Humbling

Sex, death, loneliness, old age: yes, it’s another Roth novel. But this time, is the great American

With its strap-on dildos, cat-o'-nine-tails, transsexuals, hysterical lesbians and three-in-a-bed romps, the latest product to roll out of the Philip Roth fiction factory is an old man's masturbatory fantasy which, wrapped in a smart dust jacket, the equivalent of the pornographer's brown paper bag, purports to be a novella of late-middle-aged existential crisis - at least during its more serious moments. (In its less serious moments - and I still can't decide whether these are intentional or not - it has all the aesthetic surprise of the latest upload on YouPorn.)

The Humbling shares most of the preoccupations of Roth's recent fiction: the sorrows and loneliness of old age, illness, the poignancy of lingering sexual desire, and so on. It clearly wants to be read as a companion piece to his impressive late works about the inescapable senselessness of death. Yet it is at times so ridiculous, so stylistically careless and shabbily executed, the characters so thin and artificial, that you think, at first, the whole thing must be an elaborate joke or parody, or else an exercise in character assassination - a novel written by one of Philip Roth's avenging doubles, hypothetical selves or alter egos, whose sole mission is to besmirch the reputation of the celebrated American author we know as "Philip Roth".

The central character, the well-named Simon Axler, is a once-successful theatre and film actor. At the age of 65, he has lost all confidence in his abilities and can no longer perform on stage, though he can still perform in the bedroom. "He'd lost his magic," we are told. "His impulse was spent." Humbled by this loss, Axler retreats from the world, like Nathan Zuckerman in previous Roth novels, and we first encounter him living alone in rural isolation, in upstate New York. Abandoned by his wife, he inhabits a strange, sad twilight of yearning and regret. He has recently had a short stay at a psychiatric hospital and he thinks continuously of suicide, as did Mickey Sabbath, another broken-down and dispossessed old man of the theatre created by Roth.

Most of what we know about Axler is told or asserted rather than shown or animated. He is recognisably a Roth Man, not least in his penchant for anal sex, but he has scarcely any backstory, no Newark boyhood to recall fondly, no overbearing Jewish father, no sense of the textures of a long life lived purposefully. The novel is fast-paced, hectic, erratically and gratuitously plotted, with characters being hurried on to the set to perform affectlessly before being packed away, like so many props.

There is none of the thick layering of information for which even Roth's short novels are renowned. Nor is there even much of interest on the craft of acting, as one would have expected from Roth, who is usually nothing if not fastidious in his detailing. Axler does not even think like an actor; he does not have an actor's consciousness, as Zuckerman has the consciousness of a writer. Because we do not know Axler before his humbling or see scenes from his life as an actor even in retrospect, because we do not hear others describing his memorable performances, we cannot feel the pathos of his fall. The novel is told from his point of view and so we have only his word that he was once good. That's not enough.

Roth has long been a writer of extremes, with a boisterous stand-up comedian's incli­nation to taunt and outrage. He knows no limits, which is part of the fun of reading him. He is also a kind of ventriloquist who loves doing all the voices. This is why there is so much dialogue in his novels: John Updike used to complain of Roth's "blocks of talk", of the monologues that spilled across many pages, of the life histories that were regurgitated as characters unburdened themselves. In this novel, there is also a lot of talk, but the characters tend to sound the same - even the women speak in the same punched, exclamatory, staccato rhythms as Axler.

For Roth, in his fiction, sex is an act both of supreme self-assertion and rebellion - of rebellion against bourgeois convention, against death itself. Sex simultaneously offers a release from and heightening of the self, a way to the truth. His lead men invariably seek to find a woman who is their equal in appetite in what Iago called "preposterous desires". This ideal woman is often subliterate or anti-intellectual, an immigrant such as the Croat Drenka Balich, from Sabbath's Theatre, on whose grave men would return long after her death to masturbate in memory of her astounding sexual capacities. She is the young Cuban beauty Consuela Castillo, a "masterpiece of volupté" who has an affair with the aged libertine David Kepesh in the affecting The Dying Animal. And, in The Humbling, she is Pegeen Stapleford, a full-figured, 40-year-old lesbian who begins an affair with Axler in defiance of her sexuality and her parents, old friends of the actor. The subplot is that Pegeen's long-time lesbian lover has decided to become a man. You'd never believe it.

It is Pegeen who introduces the dildos and whips into her sex life with Axler; he, in turn, introduces her to the penis. "It fills you up," she says, "the way dildos and fingers don't. It's alive. It's a living thing." Their sexual fantasies inevitably darken and deepen, and before too long they have picked up a woman named Tracy and hurried her into bed. Axler looks on as Pegeen straps on a dildo and violates Tracy, who has all the complexity of a piece of meat, in what is supposed to be a frenzy of need. How mechanically Roth manipulates his characters at this point, and how contemptuously! Even he seems conscious of this, because he belatedly allows Axler a moment of fellow feeling as he clunkingly "wondered what was going on in Tracy's mind". It's like asking what's going on in the mind of a character in a computer game, because Tracy is no more or less credible than that.

The Big Threesome is meant to illustrate how Pegeen's arrival has reawakened in Axler the desire once more to act, to become a player, if not on the stage, then at least in the world. He starts to dream of becoming a father, and one day takes a trip to a fertility expert in New York. You know nothing good will come of all this, nor does it.

Like the other lead men of Roth's late fiction, Axler is beguiled into believing that redemption is possible, even as his personal clock prepares to strike midnight. Fleetingly, sex and desire lift him from despond and offer the hope of one last, late flourishing, only for that hope to be extinguished by Pegeen's sudden departure. The Big Threesome has had a different effect on her: it has reminded her of what she's been missing.

Girls will be girls. So the wheel turns full circle and this feeble novel ends as it began, in an ecstasy of despair, with Axler, alone in his attic, staring down the barrel of a gun. Oh, go on, pull the trigger.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman.

The Humbling
Philip Roth
Jonathan Cape, 140pp, £12.99

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule

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.