Great Ideas - Series Five

The idealistic view of Great Ideas - slim paperback volumes of philosophy, polemic, essays, belles-lettres - is that the existence of the series demonstrates that Penguin has not abandoned Allen Lane's notion, now 75 years old, of making excellent literature attractive through good design and reasonable pricing. The idealist can also point out that gratifyingly healthy sales, now well into the millions, show that even though publishers are quailing before the onslaught of the digital media, the public appetite for thoughtful writing and beautiful books is still sharp. A cynic might retort that, as most of the titles in the series are abridged or excerpted from works already in the public domain, what Penguin demonstrates is that even Kierkegaard and Proust can turn a profit so long as you pander to the modern consumer's preference for pleasure delivered in bite-sized packages with cool and desirable wrappings.

The cynic has a point. The latest batch of 20 Great Ideas - bringing the whole series to a century - includes only four complete and self-contained works: John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, Freud's case history The "Wolfman", Lenin's Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism and Theodor Herzl's manifesto for Zionism, The Jewish State. The remainder are abridgements and selections, some more coherent than others. The inclusion of one woman only (George Eliot on Silly Novels by Lady Novelists) smacks of thoughtless tokenism.

Several of the titles - the British authors are particularly prone to this - are light on ideas: Night Walks is a selection of Dickens's reportage, descriptively brilliant but short of any sense of unseen economic or social pressures. Some Extraordinary Popular Delusions, taken from Charles Mackay's 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, is excellent popular history with an edge of (somewhat orotund) freakish humour, but Mackay's anecdotes of catchphrases and financial bubbles don't seem to have pointed him towards any deep thoughts about society and desire. Winston Churchill's wartime speeches, under the title We Will All Go Down Fighting to the End, are essential texts for students of rhetoric and pluck, but designed to bypass intellectual responses and aim for the gut. The cynic might wonder, too, how pressing is the need for yet another collection of Orwell's essays. Does Penguin have a department dedicated solely to repackaging the great man's work?

But cynicism seems like the wrong response, for reasons both superficial and profound. The superficial reason is that the books are so darned gorgeous - slim and pocket-sized, bound in debossed card (which makes them vulnerable to ink blots, but gives them a lovely, soft texture), and with artful covers, overseen by David Pearson, that do more than complement the contents: they remind the reader that the business of printing and design has been central to the western intellectual tradition. Each batch of Great Ideas has had a characteristic colour - red, blue, green, purple, and this time an attractive orangey brown, which on some covers fades into a creamy background, but on others stands out from pure white.
There are one or two failures here. A selection from the Greek stoic Epictetus, entitled Of Human Freedom, is presented as a mosaic, the dullest way imaginable of evoking the classical world. For On Conspiracies, excerpted from Machiavelli's Discourses, Pearson sets the title in heavy Gothic type, the author's name in a version of that decorated with peculiar porcupine bristles. The effect is contrived. But other covers, on examination, offer more than meets the eye. There is no immediately obvious reason why Rabindranath Tagore, writing on nationalism, gets a version of a 1930s Canadian Pacific poster by Charles J Greenwood advertising Lake Louise in the Rockies, with an ocean liner superimposed. But the image speaks clearly of period, of sense of place, of commerce between nations, of empire (and just think of the Indian clichés escaped).

An Image of Africa, which couples Chinua Achebe's celebrated assault on Conrad's Heart of Darkness with his 1983 essay "The Trouble with Nigeria", is oddly tacky and melodramatic - the title in brash, torn lettering over a shadowy picture of trees and water. But this is an image of Africa as it might be seen on a film poster from the 1950s, a nondescript place of interest only as a setting for the conflicts of white folk.

Bibliophiles can also wallow in Pearson's allusions to designers of the past: Churchill and Lenin both get covers inspired by the Swiss modernist Richard Paul Lohse (the Lenin, with its alternating bars or brown and black, is es­pecially beautiful); Orwell's Thoughts on the Common Toad has row upon row of amiable amphibians, parodying or paying homage to the tiers of penguins on Gwen White's King Penguin from 1946, A Book of Toys.

The deeper reasons for dismissing cynicism about the Great Ideas are, first, the occasional startling discoveries. Last year it was the anti-Enlightenment thinker Joseph de Maistre; this year it is the Italian romantic Giacomo Leopardi, with Dialogue Between Fashion and Death (Fashion claims Death as her sister - both are bent on renovating the world). Alongside the one-offs are the broader coherences: Tagore on nationalism sits tidily with Herzl on the Jewish state (and isn't it worth being reminded that Zionism was once a utopian, left-leaning ideology?); Machiavelli is a useful accompaniment to Burckhardt on the Renaissance state (The State As a Work of Art).

Even more impressive is the way that arguments on vast themes extend across the 100 books - the absurdity of existence, from the Stoics to Albert Camus; the violence that underpins empire; our deluded notions of the conditions for happiness; the nature of freedom; the flaws in capitalism; art and modernity. The whole series has included some petty ideas and non-ideas, but greatness has certainly been evident. Penguin insists that the project has now reached a terminus; I hope that the company changes its mind. There are still plenty of good ideas out there.

Great Ideas - Series Five
Various authors
Penguin, £4.99 each

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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.