Real thing: Kathleen Turner in Bakersfield Mist, a play about a woman who discovers a potential Pollock
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Mark Lawson: how “keepers of the flame” protect an artist’s legacy

From Larkin’s diaries being burnt to the refusal to acknowledge forgotten Jackson Pollocks, literary and art executors run a tight ship.

The traffic of theatrical hits between Britain and the US is sometimes blocked by failures of cultural translation but an American import that opened earlier this month should have an easy appeal to UK viewers of Antiques Roadshow. Bakersfield Mist by Stephen Sachs dramatises the case of Teri Horton, a former truck driver who bought for $5 in a Californian thrift store a splattered canvas, which a neighbour later attributed to a modern master. Sanitised for cinema frontages, Horton’s reply – “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?” – became the title of a 2006 documentary.

The Californian ex-trucker never got the moment of apotheosis for which Fiona Bruce’s Sunday-evening audience tunes in. Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, declared her possible Pollock “dead on arrival”, even though a forensic expert found what he believed to be Jack the Dripper’s fingerprints on the back of the painting.

In Bakersfield Mist, Horton and Hoving become abstracted portraits – a sensible precaution in times when lives, like works of art, can be copyrighted by their owners – in the form of Maude Gutman (Kathleen Turner), a retiree living on a Californian trailer park, and Lionel Percy (Ian McDiarmid), a Manhattan curator who has been sent on the Pollock estate’s private jet to validate or trash her find.

In the London premiere, Turner has an easier role than McDiarmid because, as on those TV junk shows, we instinctively want Maude’s picture to be worth the $50-100m that provenance would confer on it. While the audience is left to decide whether the picture is a Pollock or not, most may see Percy as the baddie: a ruthless defender of the Pollock market. The estates of major creative figures are generally cast as the enemy of artists’ fans or academic evaluators, becoming caught up in a sort of custody battle over the work and/or life.

One such recent row involved Jonathan Bate, who was initially granted but then refused access to the private papers of Ted Hughes for a planned book about the poet. Bate has suggested that Carol Hughes, the poet’s widow, broke their deal because she feared he might expose private “secrets” but the solicitor for the Hughes estate responded that Bate had strayed from the literary-critical work he had pitched towards a more conventional biography of a kind that Hughes had instructed his heirs to prevent.

The coincidence of Bakersfield Mist and the Bate-Hughes spat focuses attention on the role of cultural gatekeepers. Their major obligation is control of supply and copyrights, although this function differs intriguingly between visual art and literature.

Painters’ estates generally resist new discoveries – apart from the Horton canvas, there is a dispute over 24 other possible Pollocks – while literary executors tend to extend the shelf: vastly more Philip Larkin poems, for example, have been published since he died than when he was alive. Cynics might see in these opposite attitudes a financial motivation: scarcity makes pictures more valuable, while writers earn more money from big backlists.

But executors, like those of Ted Hughes, sometimes stop books coming out because of the other burden on descendants: control of reputation and perception. Ian Hamilton’s book Keepers of the Flame (1992) fascinatingly traced the way in which literary fame has been shaped by protective followers: from the son of John Donne to the poets Andrew Motion and Anthony Thwaite, who serve Larkin.

Hamilton showed how literary posterity was helped, across 350 years, by the strengthening and lengthening of literary copyrights but hindered by the rise, after Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians in 1918, of scandalous and revisionist biographies. The response of authors and their families was to be wary of authorising books about them – Hughes followed T S Eliot in warning off biographers – and to destroy stuff that might help trouble-trufflers. Larkin ordered that his private diaries be burned and Sylvia Plath’s last journal before her suicide was destroyed by Hughes, in his role as her executor (a word to which some writers on Plath have given a different stress).

Running under most legacy controversies is the always problematic question of what a dead person might have wanted. Plath’s final diary would have been a godsend for scholars but would she have wished her children to read it? Why didn’t Larkin have his unpublished poems ignited with the other stuff, rather than trusting to the judgement of his estate? And might not the ghost of Jackson Pollock cackle at the thought of one of his pictures being first sold as scrap and then offered for $50m?

Ian Hamilton’s conclusion was: “No one should burn anything.” I would add that it might be sensible to have more than one flame-keeper. John Updike, for example, appointed his four children and his second wife and as Adam Begley’s excellent biography of the novelist acknowledges the co-operation of the kids but not the widow, it seems there may have been a difference of opinion. But, by spreading the power, Updike ensured that an exemplary writing life was followed by an exemplary “writer’s life”.

“Bakersfield Mist” is at the Duchess Theatre, London WC2, until 30 August

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

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.