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War on the stage

"Trojan Women" and "Arab Nights" reviewed.

The Trojan Women
Gate Theatre, London W1

Arab Nights
Soho Theatre, London W11

After the struggle, the struggle. War doesn’t end with armistice, nor revolutions with resignation. The past needs dismantling and some alternative future installing in its place. Change is easy. Transition is hard. In The Trojan Women, Euripides shows us the demolition. Troy’s women – her widows and grieving mothers – become the spoils of war, divvied up among enemy generals as concubines and slaves.

Caroline Bird’s excoriating, if awkward, contemporary spin for the Gate Theatre has “the crème de la femme” await their fates in the mother-and-baby unit of a women’s prison. Cartoon animals are stuck to the walls. Below, a quivering expectant mother is handcuffed to a bed. You see her bruises before her bump. Two beds down, Hecuba (Dearbhla Molloy), “a queen without a city,” sparks up a cigarette and complains about the air con. Her pregnant cellmate clasps a duvet to her face to protect the child inside. Even in these end-times, solidarity isn’t given a second’s thought. “We’re not the same class of woman,” Molloy miaows.

That pregnant woman is, essentially, us. She is Bird’s Chorus, as nameless as she is helpless. No one listens to her pleas nor her sense. Played by Lucy Ellinson, an actress who makes every artistic choice a matter of personal politics, the Chorus is a clenching, cramping cold-sweat of a woman; excruciating to watch. By the end, both her duvet and child will be snatched away.

Her ordinariness is matched by that of their warden, Talthybius (a plodding and genial Jon Foster). He only ever obeys orders, but that compliance, siding with superiors against his peers, is crime enough. He could dish out those egg mayo sarnies all day and still not atone for it.

Even in despair, class divides. Molloy’s Hecuba – imagine Ab Fabwritten by J G Ballard – gets special treatment, as do her daughters, Cassandra and Andromache, and her son’s wife, Helen of Troy (here, “the face that launched a thousand dicks”). For some reason, the last three are all played – and smartly differentiated – by Louise Brealey (Molly from Sherlock). Bird might be making some aside about the roles imposed –madwoman, mother and whore respectively – but it’s both unclear and distracting.

Ultimately, Bird’s attempt to inject some reality, to replace the familiarity of myth with the recognition of modernity, proves double-edged. Certainly, she restores the blunt horrors that are so commonplace in Greek tragedy they go unnoticed. Hecuba is unrepentant about sacrificing a daughter for the safe return of her son’s corpse and later asks straightforwardly, “Do you think it’s easy to kill a baby?” Her backstory rarely gets such a critical raking over.

However, such jolts are undermined, not enhanced, by Bird’s efforts to ground them in the banal details of sandwiches and painkillers, because she gets carried away. About to be claimed by Achilles’s son, Andromache bemoans the “fucking salmon and hollandaise tarts” that made her such a prime catch. The aim is archness but the results are glib, even flippant.

Jokes require fine-tuning, which makes the text self-conscious and that, in turn, impedes the emotional Semtex, the agony and grief at the play’s heart. It’s hard to feel for someone, no matter how desperate their circumstances, if they’re still capable of delivering a killer aside. Tonally, Bird wants to be both Catch 22 and Schindler’s List but ridicule and tragedy, if not carefully handled, can cancel each other out. Christopher Haydon’s production follows suit, caught between cartoon and torture. There’s little sense of the world beyond the ward.

If Euripides takes things apart, Metta Theatre’s Arab Nights at the Soho Theatre shows a rebuilding. Stories are the first step. Incidentally, the Arabian Nights are almost as ubiquitous as Cinderella this Christmas. Four open nationwide within ten days. Might theatremakers facing funding cuts have found solidarity with Shahrazad, the woman whose life depends on her next story? The director, Poppy Burton-Morgan, likens her to Mohamed Bouazizi, Tunisa’s “burning man”. For three years, the Sultan has killed a wife each morning. Shahrazad (Dina Mousawi) willingly volunteers for marriage, risking her life to stem the executions with stories.

They’re a mixed bag, stylistically. The Iraqi playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak provides a fable about a randy old goat returning from exile to hijack a younger generation’s victory. Tania El Khoury’s The Dictator’s Wife is closer to sketch, as the wife’s PA rewords her tweets while she shops for shoes online. Ghalia Kabbani shows a blogger writing about one of Shahrazad’s stories and makes a Möbius strip of the structure, since Shahrazad herself is telling the blogger’s story.

Burton-Morgan’s staging is Peter Brook by the book. A wall of 1,001 shoeboxes lines the back of the stage. Sometimes they become laptops and iPads. Shoes used as hand puppets become characters; Louboutin stilettos as armed thugs, scuffed brogues as humble protestors. It’s a smart vocabulary, referencing both shoe-based protests and western materialism but cutesy theatrics lighten the impact.

Arab Nights is best at its simplest. An anonymous Iranian writer contributes The Tale in His Mind, which is plainly told – no props, no demonstration – by Lahcen Razzougui. He recounts the rubber bullets and baton charges of Tahrir Square that left him a corpse clutching a book. He hands a battered copy of A Thousand and One Nights to an audience member and asks for a paragraph, any paragraph. Each matters equally. Just like protestors. Just like people. Suddenly something real happens in the theatre and it’s more powerful than all the clever props combined.

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The family in peril

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.