Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson: Problems of exaggeration

Claire Lowdon on Charlotte Mendelson's humorous new novel, a family drama which suffers from plausibility issues.

Almost English
Charlotte Mendelson
Mantle, 288pp, £16.99
Charlotte Mendelson’s four novels – which are all about families – share many family resemblances. They satirise oddball minorities: Oxford academics, London Jews, English public school children, Hungarian expats. An overarching theme is coming of age, or failing to. There is a Dickensian love of caricature and plot and an elaborate prose style to match (“modernised” by the exclusive use of the present tense). Most of the action takes place inside the heads of the main characters, who guard terrible secrets from their loved ones. As in Dickens, the comedy comes with a sting, a poignant counterpoint to all the rollicking social satire. Or, at least, that’s the idea.
Almost English revolves around a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. The swotty Marina Farkas has left Ealing Girls’ for Combe Abbey, a minor public school in Dorset that has recently started taking girls in the sixth form. She is friendless and homesick but unable to tell her mother, Laura. In London, Laura pines for Marina, longing for the smell of her hair. Desperate not to worry her daughter, she rewrites her letters “until nothing she wants to say is left”.
Like Daughters of Jerusalem (2003) and When We Were Bad (2007), Almost English opens at a party with a bang. Mendelson excels at group scenes and at distilling the essence of a subclass. The rare breed under observation here is the Hungarian émigré: “Their bags contain poppy-seed pastries as long as your forearm; velvet-packed pralines, smuggled by fur-wrapped pensioners on the overnighter from Berne.” It is the 80th birthday of Marina’s grandmother Rozsi Farkas, who lives with her sisters, Zsuzsi and Ildi, in west London. Thirteen years ago, Rozsi’s son, Peter, abandoned Laura and Marina; now they, too, live in the “Vest-minstaircourt” basement flat. The three stylish old ladies have a mysterious past in Hungary. Hidden family intrigue surfaces when Marina befriends Guy Viney, the son of a TV historian.
Combe Abbey is well drawn and the locus of much of the novel’s humour. Extracts from the school’s almanac evoke the uncarpeted, echoing boredom of British boarding school life: “Countryman Society talk by Mr Kendal: ‘Forestry: an Ancient Craft’, Old Library, 7:30pm.” Then there is the jubilant cruelty of boys unused to co-education, rating the girls and posting the scores on the house noticeboards. At Combe, you are nothing without a nickname but be careful what you wish for. It’s all right for the beautiful Marie-Claire van Dere (“Vanderwear”); less so for the ugly Sarah Molle (“Anal Mole”).
Mendelson is good on teenage romance. At first Marina barely notices Guy: “His maleness is irrelevant, like a dog’s.” They fall into a queasy relationship, separated by the “sixinch rule” at school, taking advantage of their freedom on weekends out. Marina is unconvinced but goes along with it anyway, enduring “the questing way that his lips met hers in the ticket queue”.
When the humour flops, the problem is exaggeration. Marina’s visit to the Viney country pile is hammed up, Guy’s snooty 17-year-old sister uttering such improbabilities as, “One becomes so protective . . .” and sneering at Marina for failing to dress for dinner. More troublesome are the gear changes from funny to serious. Mendelson’s first book, Love in Idleness (2001), was saturated with overwriting; since then the habit has been curbed but not cured. A small sample: “Down she sinks into the seas of self-pity, bitter waves of misery whacking her on the head”; “The only way to live apart from one’s child is to shut up one’s heart in a metal box with chains and rust and padlocks.” Houdini was Hungarian, after all.
Both Love in Idleness and Daughters of Jerusalem involve characters who self-harm. In When We Were Bad, Frances Rubin ex - periences obsessive-compulsive disorder as an adolescent; in Almost English, it’s Marina who suffers from OCD. Every few chapters, Laura casually contemplates suicide. Often, the psychology fails to convince; disorders are being co-opted for instant gravitas.
Issues with plausibility make for a frustrating read. Guy attends the Hungarian party, so why is he later surprised to learn that Marina is part-Hungarian? There are too many of these inconsistencies. Tension mounts in the crudest of ways. “Then everything changes,” we are told on page 63. On page 77: “Everything has changed. She does not know this.” On page 115: “Much, much later . . . she wonders if this was the moment when she chose the interesting path through the forest, where trouble lay in wait.” The start is promising: you are intrigued by the larger-than-life characters and their already tangled web. Yet Mendelson heaps on the motivations and plot twists until the teetering pile threatens to collapse.
Asked if she bases her characters on people she knows, she once replied: “It’s much more fun inventing characters because you can get them to do what you want.” Perhaps, but only within reason – even in the comic novel. If you are writing in the realist tradition, you can only exaggerate so far.
Claire Lowdon is the assistant editor of Areté
Mendelson evokes the boredom of British boarding school life. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 02 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The west humiliated

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.