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All Souls and the Wider World: Statesmen, Scholars and Adventurers, c.1850-1950

All Souls and the Wider World: Statesmen, Scholars and Adventurers, c.1850-1950
Edited by S J D Green & Peregrine Horden
Oxford University Press, 326pp, £70

All Souls is Oxford's most prestigious college and the only one without students. It is perhaps best known for its prize fellowship examination, said to be the most demanding in the country. But its main distinctive feature is - or rather was - its connection with public life. The college considers its purpose as supplying, in the words of Lord Curzon in 1914, "a flow of eminent public servants to the state" and former fellows who have attained distinction in the world outside have always served on its governing body.

In 1939, as Britain slid, unprepared, towards war, its fellows included the foreign secretary, the chancellor of the Exchequer, the archbishop of Canterbury, the editor of the Times and the cabinet secretary. The journalist Anthony Sampson wrote that the college could, then, "lay some claim to be governing Britain - with disastrous results". More recently, however, the flow seems to have dried up. There are now only two fellows from public life, the Conservative ex-ministers John Redwood and William Wal­degrave. The college counts for more in the world of scholarship than it did before the war but less in the world of public affairs.

All Souls and the Wider World seeks to estimate the public impact of the college. Compiled by fellows and former fellows, it could easily have degenerated into a work of piety. It is far from that. The contributors are quite ruthless in attacking, with merciless scholarly precision, the idea that the college was the headquarters of an establishment that governed Britain or its empire in the first half of
the 20th century.

If there is a weakness, it is that good scho­larship is deployed on unimportant subjects. There is a chapter on Keith Hancock, no doubt a considerable figure in his time but now remembered, if at all, primarily for his biography of the South African statesman Jan Smuts. And was it necessary to include a chapter dis­interring G M Young, a historian of no great distinction and a man with just a single good
book to his name?

However, most of the essays do deal with matters of importance. There is, for example, a fine exercise in revisionism by Stephen Cretney in his chapter on John Simon. It has long been the custom to excoriate Simon as a man of Munich but Cretney shows that he had great achievements to his credit as a humane home secretary and reforming lord chancellor. There is also a penetrating analysis of appeasement by one of the editors, Simon Green. No student who reads it will ever feel confident in employing the concept again.

Naturally, if the idea of the "establishment" is a crude journalistic simplification and if, as Green insists, the notion of appeasement has little application, since most politicians of the 1930s were in favour of conciliating at least one of Britain's opponents at some time or other, then all can be acquitted and no one is to blame - a comforting verdict. And yet, perhaps Green's pointillist, Namierite history - incidentally, Lewis Namier was twice rejected by the college, largely, it seems, on anti-Semitic grounds - distorts by ignoring the ideological atmosphere of the period. That atmosphere was created by Lord Milner, not a fellow but an im­perial proconsul whose "religio Milneriana" profoundly influenced All Souls.

This religion entailed that empire mattered more than Europe. In the First World War, Milner had sought a negotiated peace with Germany at the expense of Russia to create a barrier against Bolshevism. He was perfectly prepared to write off central and eastern Europe. "We did not," Milner insisted, "go to war for Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Romanians or Poles" - faraway countries of which we knew nothing. Imperialists should not worry about who controlled such unimportant places, so long as they continued to rule a worldwide empire. Here, surely, is to be found the ideo­logical origins of British foreign policy in the 1930s and some of the fellows of All Souls were highly complicit in it.

Lord Halifax, foreign secretary at the time of Munich, was a fellow of the college. A former viceroy of India, he was a Knight of the Garter and would become a member of the Order of Merit. Yet he was profoundly ignorant of Europe. At a time when the man in the street felt instinctively that Hitler was a thoroughly nasty piece of work, Halifax judged him "a militant Mahatma Gandhi" and "an oriental mystic", while he found Hermann Göring "a perfect pet". Halifax was ignorant of England, too, except for his college, London clubs and the grouse moors. "We need a new church school here," he declared of his Yorkshire village in the 1930s. "We want a school to train them for servants and butlers."

I used to think that public life would be improved if the universities had more influence. The history of All Souls as recounted here makes me think again.

Vernon Bogdanor is research professor at the Institute for Contemporary History, King's College, London, and was for many years professor of government at Oxford University

This article first appeared in the 26 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Mission impossible

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.