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The Last of the Haussmans - review

Andrew Billen is impressed by Julie Walters as a hedonistic old junkie

The Last of the Haussmans
National Theatre, London SE1

It’s not Terms of Endearment, the stroppy daughter tells her druggy brother when he returns to the family home upon news that their mother is suffering from melanoma. Libby, played by Helen McCrory as an upper-class screech owl, is not wrong. Leave your Kleenex travel pack at home: this is the least sentimental deathbed comedy you will see. But what else is it? It is certainly not the slice of dynastic Jewish nostalgia that the play’s title suggests.

There is no sign – apart from that above their original hardware shop – that the Haussmans are even Jewish. But is the play quite the assassination of the values of 1960s hippie culture, as embodied in Libby’s and Nick’s mother, Judy, that other critics have seen – a bookend to Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love a few months ago?

Stephen Beresford’s more than accomplished debut as a playwright is without doubt fuelled by hate, which is its own kind of joke against peace’n’love. “Wanking into a chrysanthemum”, as Nick summarises it, has not provided effective parenting. Libby, in her forties, falls in and out of relationships and has a terrible one with her contemptuous daughter, Summer, who in the end chooses affluence and her estranged father. Nick is an addict whose idea of breakfast is a “light” cider. He has a jobless, rackety existence and develops hopeless crushes on unavailable men, such as his mother’s “pool boy”, actually a local youth who uses the pool for swimming practice.

Rory Kinnear plays Nick, and Kinnear never gives a bad performance but he is too sturdy and well-looking for a role that requires emaciation and facial devastation. What Nick and Libby have in common (apart from, for a moment, an interest in the pool boy) is hatred for their mother.

Enter Julie Walters. You almost want to say enter-to-applause Julie Walters but this is the South Bank, not the West End, and Walters does not milk the part of Judy, the hedonistic, guru-following, sexually liberated old junkie now getting ill from all that sun worship. When she emerges from her dilapidated, art deco home in South Devon, her hair hangs in long, silver, gory locks but she wears a Snoopy nightdress – a combination that suggests that age has caught up with her, yet she is still a child. She loves her children theoretically but, having given birth to them amid the distractions of the ashram trail, hardly seems to know them. When the corrupt, ex-hippie local doctor, with whom both she and Libby fandangle, gets her pain relief wrong, she treats her delirium as one last perceptive acid trip.

As a charismatic with all the wrong values, however, Judy, as played by Walters and written by Beresford, is no “Rooster” Byron from Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem. Her language is not inventive enough and her enthusiasm for her causes not nearly so playfully infectious. But, like Butterworth in that play, I believe Beresford is of the devil’s party.

Judy, although she is dying, is his only truly happy character. The elixirs she discovered in the 1960s – sex, drugs, eastern religions, charitable works and the belief that things could and should be a-changin’ – may have done nothing for society or her family but they have evidently worked for her. She also gets one genuinely powerful speech, which is far more convincing than Nick’s counterblast that Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms were the true revolutionaries. Property, she says, is “the greatest agent of control ever devised by any government anywhere – get people to care about their property and you don’t even have to police the state”. It is the idea that property ownership, the love of it, is the root of all evil that is the heart of this play and translates its title.

Everyone apart from Judy cares about this house and who will end up owning it. Judy, who cannot even bother to envy David Dimbleby’s new extension across the bay, laughs hysterically when she learns that she no longer owns it. The play ends with the smashing sound of Nick trying to get into a secret drinks cabinet (some cabinet) indoors, just as The Cherry Orchard ends with the sound of axes being taken to the trees.

Beresford, whose use of a doctor is another homage to the master, is no Chekhov, nor, as yet, a Butterworth, but I shall remember Vicki Mortimer’s magnificently designed, peeling Bauhaus on its revolve long after anything else has muddled in my mind. The Last of the Haussmans is about a house and how little houses matter. Judy, in her vagrant years, streaks of shit down her tights, was more nearly right than her children will ever be able to concede – and far less deracinated.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

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.