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Reviewed: Unhitched - the Trial of Christopher Hitchens by Richard Seymour

George Eaton reviews an embittered, polemical take on the late writer's life.

Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens
Richard Seymour
Verso, 160pp, £9.99

With the defendant “in absentia”, as Richard Seymour phrases it, there are some who will deem this book to be in poor taste. But Christopher Hitchens, who rightly regarded the injunction not to “speak ill of the dead” as an invitation to hypocrisy, would not have been one of them. For Hitchens, it was both a duty and a pleasure to combat the sanitised memorials that greeted the passing of his opponents. “If you gave [Jerry] Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox,” was his pithy verdict on the late US televangelist.

His only proviso, he told me when I interviewed him for the New Statesman in 2010, was: “You should never say anything that you weren’t prepared to say when the person was around to defend themselves.” But as the author of a 2005 piece entitled “The genocidal imagination of Christopher Hitchens”, Seymour can hardly be accused of concealing his loathing of the polemicist.

Confirming the adage that the left seeks traitors and the right seeks converts, we find Hitchens arraigned for the crime of apostasy. The sense of fratricide is enhanced by the book’s title (a deliberate echo of Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger) and its publisher, Verso, the radical imprint responsible for putting out Hitchens’s indictments of Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Kissinger. A Trotskyist in his youth (his party of choice, the International Socialists, was the fore - runner of Seymour’s Socialist Workers Party), Hitchens, the author claims, ended his life as an apologist for imperialism and its most toxic representative, the Bush administration.

One is reluctant to listen to lectures of this kind from a member of a party that uncritically aligned itself with Hezbollah and Hamas (both of which make George W Bush look positively libertarian) during the 2006 Lebanon war, not least one whose prose is as tediously inflated as Seymour’s. To take only the most egregious example, he writes early in the book of Hitchens’s “tendency to opportunistically strip-mine the cynosures of his old faith in order to defend his new alignments in the conjuncture of the ‘war on terror’”.

Seymour undermines his case from the outset by deploying “left” as a synonym for “things I like” and “right” as a synonym for “things I don’t”. In common with Michael Foot’s Labour Party, Hitchens supported the Falklands war on the anti-totalitarian grounds that it would lead to the downfall of the Galtieri regime (a prediction that proved entirely correct). However, the myopically anti-imperialist Seymour can only view this as evidence of Hitchens’s jingoism.

He concedes that Hitchens, unlike self-declared apostates such as Paul Johnson, David Horowitz and Melanie Phillips, recanted almost none of his early positions. Hitchens never stopped campaigning for Henry Kissinger to be brought to justice, for the abolition of the death penalty and for Israel to surrender the Occupied Territories.

For Seymour, Hitchens’s enduring leftism was but a rhetorical veneer for rampant imperialism. Such a judgement ignores the extent to which his stances remained leftist in substance, rather than merely style. Hitchens was wrong – unforgivably wrong – about Iraq but for the best of reasons. His support for the invasion arose out of his long-standing solidarity with the country’s Kurds (see his long 1992 piece for National Geographic, “The Struggle of the Kurds”, collected in Love, Poverty and War) and his belief that even war was preferable to the survival of Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian regime (“a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath it”). Only the most unreflective leftist would conclude that there is no reasonable debate to be had on these points.

Hitchens, we are told, became a “flack”, a “courtier”, an “amanuensis” of the Bush administration. If so, the president should have ordered a replacement. Among other things, Hitchens acted as a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought against the administration for its warrantless wiretapping programme, accused Bush of “near-impeachable irresponsibility in the matter of postwar planning” and denounced him as an “idiotic and psychically damaged Sabbath-fanatic”. One searches in vain for any mention of this in Seymour’s hatchet job.

A more apposite criticism of Hitchens is that having no patience for social democratic gradualism, he wrote little of the unglamorous but worthy duty of improving the lot of the poorest. His eventual conclusion that a leader’s character mattered more than his or her beliefs was a profoundly conservative one. When I asked him for his opinion of David Cameron, he replied: “He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, ‘What do you think of him?’ And my answer is: ‘He doesn’t make me think.’” This judgement is now celebrated but I was dismayed by it. Did Hitchens have nothing to say about Cameron’s austerity economics or his sinister alliance with Europe’s far right?

Yet there was no more formidable defender of the Enlightenment values of reason, secularism and internationalism. Any left that is worthy of the name will seek to learn from such a figure, not impugn him. But if one seeks evidence of why Hitchens so often felt the need to deny this association, Seymour’s embittered polemic provides ample proof.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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.