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It’s all talk

Skip the corporate literary festivals and root out the gems, says Sophie Elmhirst.

You could spend the long, wet summer navigating Britain’s lanes in quest of the latest boutique literary festival. (Boutique: once a term for a distinguished shop for ladies’ clothes; now, like bespoke, used in marketing bumf and hotel brochures to conjure up feelings of exclusivity and refinement, to make you feel special). They are ubiquitous: every town, if it has enough gung-ho organising types, has its own, and authors if they wish can fritter half the year away in chilly town halls, addressing a bookish throng.

A writer at Ways with Words’ literary festival in the Lake District –Words by the Water – held in early March, told me how last summer, to negotiate his way through the mass of festivals into which he’d been marshalled by his publicist, he pre-crafted a series of tweets months before the events themselves and scheduled them to be sent out to his Twitter followers shortly after each one: “Wonderful time in Stratford; brilliant questions”; “thank you Manchester! Shame about the weather” and so on.

Authors, nowadays, can’t rely on a publisher to do their publicity for them: they are usually contractually obliged to engage gamely in interviews, Facebook, Twitter, festivals and signings. The message is clear: get out there and sell (both yourself and your book). A literary publisher tells me that some of his authors have rather taken to life on the road, loping from hotel to hotel and lunch to dinner and sending the hefty bill to their editors. He now limits his authors to Hay-on-Wye, Oxford, Edinburgh and Cheltenham, the only festivals worth doing from a publisher’s point of view, he says, as they’re the only ones likely to gain enough press coverage to make the expense worthwhile.

Perhaps that’s true, commercially speaking, but the itinerant author would be missing some treats tucked away in the corners of this island. Take the Laugharne Weekend – a festival of three years’ standing in Dylan Thomas’s old home town, where he wrote (and partially set) Under Milk Wood. Here, among the lanes and squares, in the shadow of a ruined castle that overlooks an estuary, are talks and concerts staged in the town hall, a chapel, upstairs at the pub, in a makeshift tent with the rain pattering down on the roof – anywhere that can seat people in rows. There is a comforting theme of organised chaos running through the weekend, which lends a conversational intimacy to events – each well-attended – from the singer Cerys Matthews in the village church to the cartoonist Martin Rowson unleashing a tirade of filth in a mini-marquee. Compared to those corporate-sponsored hyper-events – the Hays and the Oxfords – with their green rooms and VIP areas and media parties, Laugharne feels open, easy and happily small.

The literary festival is now such an unavoidable part of the publishing calendar that no one really questions whether they’re good for books, writers or audiences. Publishers say they do nothing for sales (the post-reading signings don’t quite attract rock-star snaking queues). And, more poignantly, not all writers are that good at it. Authors, who mostly happen to be the kinds of people who are very comfortable spending long hours alone in a quiet room, are routinely thrust on to stages and instructed to engage an audience. But they’re not necessarily the world’s natural entertainers.

One of many exceptions at Words by the Water in Keswick was the poet and Edward Thomas biographer, Matthew Hollis. Standing at a lectern, Hollis delivered a beautifully written talk, aided by a meticulous PowerPoint presentation (unusual terrain for a poet), which flashed up old photographs of Thomas’s friends and drinking holes. He played spoken recordings of Thomas’s poems, including one by the poet’s wife reciting “Adlestrop”, which left the room vibrating with emotion. The novelist Helen Dunmore successfully warmed her audience, too, able to talk to 100 people as though she was talking to one. But then there was the double act who wrote the book of The King’s Speech (one of whom was the speech therapist Lionel Logue’s grandson). They were friendly and chatty but as they trotted through a familiar chronology, you wondered if they’d given one too many talks.

This new breed of little festival, as it grows and multiplies across Britain, will have to work hard to attract an audience who face plenty of competition for their time and money. (In Keswick, you worried that the audience wouldn’t be around much longer: a talk about the 1958 Antarctic expedition undertaken by Edmund Hillary turned into a reunion, as no fewer than three people in the crowd revealed that they were either married to someone who went on the expedition or on it themselves, which gives you an indication of the average age in the room). But the Ways with Words team is an enterprising, lively outfit (they now run four festivals annually across Britain) and while Keswick caters to a certain demographic, their new festival in Holland Park – with speakers such as AA Gill, Alain de Botton, Mary McCartney and Sophie Dahl – seems designed to attract another type entirely.

And then there’s Laugharne. There, amid the real ale and the damp, were people from near and far, in a wistful town that, though far along the south Welsh coast, evidently has a magnetic pull for artists (Patti Smith is returning for the second time this summer). Its most famous resident, Dylan Thomas, described how he came to live there in his last BBC radio broadcast in 1953: “some, like myself, just came, one day, for the day, and never left; got off the bus, and forgot to get on again”. He continued, unwittingly explaining the lure of the place to festival-goers years later: “Whatever the reason, if any, for our being here, in this timeless, mild, beguiling island of a town with its seven public-houses, one chapel in action, one church, one factory, two billiard tables, one St Bernard (without brandy), one policeman, three rivers, a visiting sea, one Rolls Royce selling fish and chips, one cannon (castiron), one chancellor (flesh and blood), one port-reeve, one Danny Raye, and a multitude of mixed birds, here we just are, and there is nowhere like it anywhere at all.”


The NS Recommends: Small Literary Festivals

Stoke Newington Literary Festival, 1-3 June

Features local beers and performers including the punk poet John Cooper Clarke.

Wigtown Book Festival, 28 Sep-7 Oct

Ten days in Scotland’s “national book town” on the Solway Coast.

Appledore Book Festival, 29 Sep-7 Oct

Takes over the Devon fishing town.

Bridlington Poetry Festival, 8-10 June

Held on 50 acres of landscaped garden surrounding Sewerby Hall in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Guildford Book Festival, 18-27 October

Lionel Shriver and Jeremy Paxman will be among the guest authors here.

Ilkley Literature Festival, 28 Sep-14 Oct

This has a lively fringe that accepts submissions from local writers.

Budleigh Salterton Lit Fest, 21-23 September

The Devon seaside town hosts the likes of “a walk with words”.

Compiled by Charlotte Simmonds

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Halal: Britain’s most feared food

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.