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Memory Palace at the V&A: Shored against my ruins

In effect, this exhibition is a book in 3D, a walk-through experience where much (but not all) of Kunzru’s words jump out of the pages in rusted copper lettering.

Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace
Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7

“I originally resisted moving to Brooklyn because it’s so fucking clichéd,” says the novelist Hari Kunzru, now an Essex boy in New York. We’ve just had to leave the first Brooklyn coffee shop where we’d wanted to do the interview because the entire cast of Girls were sitting tapping on their MacBook Airs and nursing lattes. Sometimes the New Yorkness of New York is overwhelming.

I’m here to talk to about Memory Palace, a collaborative, multi-dimensional project between him and 20 graphic designers and illustrators for the V&A in London. The curators, Laurie Britton Newell and Ligaya Salazar, wanted to put on the first exhibition of graphic design in the museum for a decade but for it to centre around a specially commissioned work of fiction. The result is a dystopian novella by Kunzru – chosen for the non-linear and allusive quality of his fiction, in novels such as Gods and Monsters – and a simultaneous exhibition of the book, as interpreted by the designers. In effect, it’s a book in 3D, a walk-through experience where much (but not all) of Kunzru’s words jump out of the pages in rusted copper lettering.

Kunzru also seems a natural choice of author because he’s at ease with the contemporary art scene, has artist friends and writes on art. He tells me he can feel closer culturally to that world than the literary one. “The book world can feel rather divorced from other cultural institutions and it frustrates me.”

His brief was deliberately loose. He worked with the curators and designers on what a book would look like conveyed in a museum space. To Kunzru, it was imperative the book “should use the fact it was going to be presented in the V&A of all places – imperial treasure house”, while bringing in many strands of his interests and obsessions: Sixties “inner space” science fiction, green anarchism, Norse mythology, the 18th-century cult of ruins, disaster movies and the eponymous “memory palaces”.

“I came across the concept of memory palaces reading about the Renaissance. It was the idea of imagining spaces, mostly cathedrals populated with mnemonic objects to remember complicated pieces of information.” This became an anchor for his story as he imagined the circumstances in which such a system would be used again: “And I realised it would only be if you took away the whole digital world and the internet.” At the same time he was becoming obsessed with online writing by anti-civilisationist anarchists. “I find it an intriguingly alien set of thoughts: they believe that everything went wrong at the dawn of agriculture. To them, as soon as you start having a surplus, you’re going down the route of building a palace for the leader, and with that comes numbers and writing and domination . . .”

Memory Palace is a semi-allegorical, everyman story of a London far in the future in which a magnetic storm (“the Withering”) has wiped out the world’s technology and knowledge. Books and any forms of remembering are banned by the hardline, kiltwearing rulers, or thanes, “the bringers of the Wilding”. London is in ruins and people have lost the art of memory, except for a small resistance group called the “memorialists”, of whom the nameless, Winston Smith-like protagonist is one. We read and see his journey as told from prison; both book and exhibition are presented in fragmented form, chunks of prose interspersed with illustrations; and in turn the text and graphics brought to life in the gallery space.

As much as there is a solemnity and seriousness of intent about the project, it’s also clear Kunzru has had tremendous fun with the language, in the mangled and misinterpreted words from the past (an “internet” for a banned group, “landfills” for vast treasuries, “pewters” for computers, “sign” for information, “tricknology” for technology and so on). “It allows you to be a little bit sly and satirical – and any time you’re writing a dystopian story, you’re not really writing about the future, you’re writing about now.” As such Kunzru sees it firmly as a “post economic crash book”. But it’s also a chance for the self-professed sci-fi geek to obliterate his former hometown, turn the Olympic park into the worst slum in London and shatter the Shard: “It’s a privilege of being a writer that it’s very cheap to express ideas that would be expensive on film – I can destroy London just by typing a few sentences.” He knew early on that he wanted to include the Olympic Park: “it’s immediately amusing to take this shiny, new venue and ruin it straight away.”

The ruin of London is nothing new in literature, he says, from early 20th-century sci-fi and “weird Victorian penny dreadful stories about airships bombing London and yellow hordes storming up the Thames”. The main work of dystopian fiction that influenced him, however, was Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. “It’s an extraordinary novel set after a nuclear disaster that imagines an England in which technology has been obliterated and it’s reverted to a tribal setting.”

I tell him I love the protagonist’s misplaced, rose-tinted nostalgia about the London of the past (our present). “He thought it was a wonderful world of palaces, whereas today is a dog-eat-dog Hobbesian world of grubbing about in the ruins.” There is a sense for Kunzru that it was ever thus, that we’ve always rubbished the present and remembered some previous, imaginary past. Something like the hyper-idealised Downton Abbey? “I’ve been thinking a lot about Downton Abbey recently and I think it’s definitely a symptom of the End Times. It’s true! But yes there is always this sense that perhaps we live after the great times, whether that’s the Sixties, the Empire or the Battle of Agincourt. That suspicion you’ve come after the party.”

This fear about the fragility of civilisation permeates the project, I suggest, because of our over-reliance on technology, and it wouldn’t take much for us to slip backwards. Kunzru compares it to no one remembering phone numbers any more; if you’re arrested and have one call, who do you call if you know no numbers. “We’ve outsourced a lot of our memory to devices.”

In Kunzru’s vision, with the death of the digital world, we are plunged back into a dark age. As he says, “I’d love to imagine we’d all discover our love for each other but I suspect that there’s some pretty nasty shit.” He compares his experience of the recent hurricane in New York: “When you take the power away, what happens is that a lot of people freak out. During a false alarm hurricane a few years ago, people were losing their minds: candles ran out so someone in my building just panic-bought Diptyque!”

The exhibition is a triumph for the collaborators’ collective vision. Some of the practitioners have interpreted Kunzru’s text two-dimensionally, others in vivid sculptural form. It’s as if the pages of the book have burst open, magically scattering words and illustrations into the gallery’s rooms.

The story ends in a viewer-participatory space, symbolising the prisoner’s cache of memories that are, as Kunzru puts it, “going to dissolve into this larger body of memories the group was going to hold.

“The question is: if someone asked you if you were able to transmit one of your memories, what would it be? It’s about what persists of us after we die. And that’s a religious, a scientific and a literary question.

“Memory Palace” runs until 20 October

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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.