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You just keep me hanging on

Some of the finest art about love has played games with time and the agony of waiting.

“Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute,” said Albert Einstein, illustrating his theory of relativity. That’s fine when the girl (or boy) in question is safely by your side. But what if you have to wait for them to arrive?

In the legend of Hero and Leander, the beautiful Hero lives in a tower overlooking the Hellespont (present-day Dardanelles). As a priestess of Aphrodite, she has taken a vow of chastity – a decision she soon regrets when she falls in love with Leander, who, as fate would unhelpfully have it, lives across the water on the opposite shore. But such irritations are no obstacle to young love and so it is that, under cover of night, Leander takes to swimming the six-kilometre stretch of water to be with her, guided only by the glow of the oil lamps that she lights. This arrangement rolls along quite happily until one luckless night, when the lamps blow out in a storm and Leander, left in the dark without landmarks, loses his way and drowns.

Though Leander’s fate is undeniably tragic, to my mind it is Hero who deserves the greater part of our sympathy, as she sets about the daily and unenviable task of waiting. She can never be certain if she’ll be visited at all. And on the night of the storm, her waiting has a peculiarly bitter edge to it: she longs for Leander to swim to her but at the same time she is only too aware of the dangers he’ll face if he does. It is a tension many of us have known – the tension of both wanting and not wanting something to happen, because we are unsure how the story will end.

While uncertainty lies at the heart of all waiting, whatever form it may take, Hero’s variety is arguably the worst, inasmuch as both the manner and the time of her release are hidden from view. In other instances (when we wait for the results of a medical test or school exam), we may know the time but not the manner of release. Even the simplest version (in which we look forward to a special event or wait for the timetabled train to arrive) can make us edgy, unable to focus on much besides the goal.

So, what goes on in this no-man’s-land of waiting? And what happens to time when we wait? The normal rules don’t seem to apply.
In a final variant, the thing that unsettles us most is not knowing when the wait will end. Emily Dickinson communicates this feeling with customary elegance in a poem that opens:

If you were coming in the fall,
I’d brush the summer by
With half a smile and half a spurn
As housewives do a fly

The speaker would gladly extend her wait “if only centuries delayed”. It is not until the closing stanza that we understand the source of her frustration:

But now, all ignorant of the length
Of time’s uncertain wing,
It goads me, like the goblin bee,
That will not state its sting.

So, to wait is to be partly aware, partly in the dark: we know the what, but the when or the how eludes us. In this unsettling atmosphere
it is impossible to go about our normal business because if we take our eyes off the goal for a second, we are in danger of missing the crucial moment altogether. We have no choice but to remain alert, perpetually watchful, looking out for the first twitch of that sail on the horizon. (Interestingly, the word “wait” comes from the Old Northern French waitier, meaning to watch or attend.)

Like all critical spells of waiting (whether they take place in a pub or in a hospital emergency ward), Hero’s seems endless. Each moment is an eternity because it has no foreseeable conclusion. And as she watches through the prism of her anxiety, she has the strongest feeling that she is impeding the course of time itself.

The feeling would not have been strange to her: the ancient Greeks were after all familiar with the notion that human passions vary the flow of time for each individual. In the Iliad, time stretches and contracts, speeds up and slows down in response to Achilles’s emotions. Sometimes a whole book is spent on a single day; at others, several days go by in a single page. Hero’s predicament – as she begins the long and anxious wait for her lover, veering between hope and despair – seems an equally fitting vessel for the experience. Time isn’t fixed; it’s elastic.

The Greeks had more than one word for time. Chronos is chronological or serial time, of the sort with which we are most familiar today, but kairos is something altogether different. Kairos exists outside the confines of space-time and is therefore unmeasured and unmeasurable. It is a richly textured concept with layers of meaning but refers in essence to an opportune moment, a time in which something exceptional, perhaps life-changing, takes place. In modern Greek, kairos means simply “weather”, suggesting the possibility that time may be a quality rather than a quantity. We see our first snowfall, climb mountains and fall in love in kairos time.

Yet human beings have long felt the need to regulate the passage of time and have used various means over the centuries to do so – shadows, water, sand, wax, oil, quartz, satellites. The function of time measurements is to impose order on human activity. In the days when water clocks were the principal timekeepers, speeches in the Greek law courts were allocated a set amount of water in relation to the importance of the case. Plaintiff and defendant had equal time to speak. It fell to one of the jurors to pour the requisite number of jugs into the clock jar at the start of each speech, and when the clock was empty, the speech was over.

The first mechanical clocks didn’t appear until medieval times, fitted into towers in monasteries and churches and chiming on the hour to call the faithful to prayer. The vocal property of these early clocks was central (the very word clock is from cloche, a bell) because although the new clocks had faces, they were devoid of either dials or hands. As such, their hourly toll was the only means they had of communicating.

It is not impossible to envisage a world in which kairos time dominates, a world where time exists primarily as a quality and where clocks (if they have any place at all) have little need to speak. They are, after all, no more than witnesses of time, mere bystanders. In such a world, the success of a life might reasonably be measured by the quantity of pivotal moments it contained, as opposed to the number of deadlines met, the number of goals achieved.

I imagine living a life this way would feel a little like building a monument – a stockpile of significant moments heaped up like a cairn – to be revisited and viewed in quieter times. And if the moments were to be set in motion again, each one would run at its original pace, powered by the emotion that formed it.

In cinema, so much has been made of the link between pace and sentiment that certain slow-motion scenes have become part of our shared consciousness: the determination on the faces of the runners in Chariots of Fire, the menace of that walk in the title sequence of Reservoir Dogs, the mix of fear and elation that precipitates Thelma and Louise’s plunge over the edge of the Grand Canyon into their final sunset.

Back in Hero’s high room by the sea, time has slowed to such an extent her world seems to have fractured into separate elements. There are the various sea-sounds blown up from the bay, the shadows in the room, the flame of an oil lamp tugging on its stem, an occasional icy draught that slides under the door, and the door itself knocking in its frame. But there is no sign of Leander. As evening approaches, I like to imagine Hero reaching up to close the shutters against the gathering storm, the darkening sky. It’s a task that, in the drawn-out cadence of her waiting, takes all the willpower she can muster.

The final guiding home of the slide-bolt is a moment loaded with import, a film-maker’s dream. Above all, it is an act of defiance: whatever the outcome of her wait, for the time being at least, she is no longer watching.

Julia Copus is a poet, and won the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem in 2010

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader

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.