Kite marks for paying tax, the end of the energy industry and Paul Dacre’s ten-foot lizards

Oscar Wilde is supposed to have said that socialism took up too many evenings. Now it involves rather a lot of shopping trips or, at least, mouse clicks. Amazon, Google, Starbucks, Apple, Facebook and many others should be boycotted because, we are told, they do not pay sufficient tax. Several of the guilty companies, I fear, have become almost indispensable to my working life and it is not always easy to find acceptable alternatives.

In any case, the ethics are not straightforward. For example, AbeBooks (owned by Amazon) allows me to purchase from second-hand bookshops in Hay-on-Wye, while many Starbucks outlets are franchises that are owned not by the corporation that paid no UK corporation tax in the past three years but by humble folk, often immigrants. Besides, even if I get my books from the local bookshop or drink coffee at a greasy spoon, how can I be sure that their owners are paying their fair share of tax?

One solution is for HMRC to introduce a Kitemark-style system, allowing companies that pay full corporation tax to display an official logo inside and outside their stores and on their websites. It could award stars, with a maximum of five for those that also pay VAT in full and on time and can show that their directors pay full UK income tax. It could also publish an online “good taxpayer guide” with a searchable database so that if, say, you wanted to buy socks from a company that contributed properly to the UK exchequer, you could find it with a couple of clicks.

In truth, however, the onus should not be on us. The simplest answer is for the government to close the tax loopholes that companies can legally exploit, including the numerous tax havens under British jurisdiction.

Fuel for thought

David Cameron proposes legislation forcing energy companies to offer just four tariffs, with customers automatically put on the cheapest unless they choose otherwise. In effect, the government, with Ofgem, will dictate energy prices. Heating, lighting and cooking fuel are essential to life, so I have no objection to that. Yet as the energy companies have only ever been able to compete on price – the gas or electricity being identical, whoever supplies it – can anyone explain the point of persisting with a competitive market? Why not cut out the middlemen and renationalise the energy industry?

Conspiracy theory

The Daily Mail has published, over an awesome 12 pages, an exposé of ten-foot lizards (sorry, I mean normal-sized human beings) who are conspiring to destroy our free press. It is a masterpiece of what I call “link” journalism. Show that X sits on the same committee as W who is married to Y whose cousin Z once spent a night at the house of the mass murderer V and, hey presto, X is “linked” to V and therefore to mass murder. Moreover, X probably conspired with W, Y and Z to cover up V’s crimes.

In the Mail’s “special investigation”, X is David Bell, the former chairman of the Financial Timesand a leading figure in “an incestuous network” of left-leaning liberal types, most of them New Labour supporters. Bell is an assessor for the Leveson inquiry, a trustee of Common Purpose (a non-profit group that runs “leadership development” courses) and a cofounder of the Media Standards Trust, which has “spawned” (the Mail’s word) Hacked Off, the campaign against phone-hacking. In these roles, Bell has naturally made lots of “links”, particularly if you count anybody who’s been on a Common Purpose course.

Ayatollah Paul Dacre, “editor” of the Mail, is an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society. He, I can reveal, is “linked” to fellow ambassadors such as Hazel Blears, accused of multiple “flipping” of homes during the MPs’ expenses scandal; Rosie Boycott, the former campaigner for cannabis legalisation; Jo Brand, a republican and admirer of the late Michael Foot; and Robbie Savage, the footballer who once held the alltime record for yellow cards. Surely a conspiracy to undermine the British way of life.

Top of the class

The Sutton Trust reveals, in case we hadn’t noticed, that the majority of “top people” in Britain, even in literature and classical music, were educated at fee-charging schools. Of all professional careers (I exclude the police, sport and pop music from this category), education has the lowest proportion of public-school alumni in leadership positions: “only” 34 per cent. This finding accords with my experience. I have interviewed many prominent educational figures and been struck by how often they come from humble backgrounds. Does this, I wonder, explain why “the education establishment” is so despised and reviled by politicians of all parties?

Headwinds of change

The governor of the Bank of England and the Chancellor keep telling us that the economy faces “headwinds”. A few years ago, they (or their predecessors) would have said it was “on a sticky wicket”. Why the change of metaphor? Perhaps they realise that, since the introduction of covered pitches in cricket, sticky wickets can occur only if the groundsman fails to do his job properly.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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.