Show Hide image

You say potato, I say spud, but the teenager sticks with pizza

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

I have the impression that Spudulike has been in steady retreat for some years now; their website lists a modest 45 outlets blobbed across the forked mash of the British hinterlands, but surely this cannot be the zenith – as it were, the high melted-cheese-mark – of their empire? Back in the 1980s, Spudulike was a name to conjure with – so long as what you wanted to magic up was a gale of laughter. But even being the butt of snobbish jokes requires a significant cultural presence and 45 outlets don’t seem fit for purpose. No, poor old Spudulike – I cannot forbear from dramatising its predi - cament as a version of the title sequence of Dad’s Army, with the plucky little spud harassed by Von Schlieffening formations of KFC, Pizza Hut and Subway. My teenager and I managed to run an embattled outlet to ground in a city-centre food court, where it was encircled by these other, victorious practitioners of Nahrungkrieg.

My teenager sneered at the very idea of Spudulike: “It’s like calling a fast-food joint in India Riceulike. Of course you aren’t going to like it when it’s your staple-bloody-food.” Yes, it was a more innocent time when a couple of Edinburghers fed up with their jobs opened the first Spudulike. Back then, in the early 1970s, the idea a simple baked potato could be a quick, easy and tasty source of nutrition was greeted not with cynicism but unfeigned delight. Then again, in the same period Jimmy Savile was hosting a regular Radio 1 talk show, Speakeasy, that gave troubled teenagers the chance to talk about their problems to the nation . . . and him.

My teenager took his custom to Pizza Hut but I squared up to the Spudulike counter and found myself lost in an orthographic fugue: I could’ve sworn that back in the day Spudulike was rendered Spud-U-Like, but the only remnant of this in the current signage was the lower-case italic “u” picked out by a circle. Tasteful, I thought, rather than tasty. The woman in the red T-shirt and baseball cap asked me what I wanted, and I found myself prevaricating between the prawn cocktail filling and grated cheese – which would have to be the classic version of Spudulike’s sig - nature dish. “Er . . . what’s in the prawn cocktail?” I asked. “Prawns, salad cream and tom - ato sauce,” she replied. It seemed innocent enough, but then as her co-worker ladled this gloop on to the steaming potato, she enquired, “Cheese?”

I was flummoxed. Prawn cocktail and cheese? I doubt Ferran Adrià could’ve conceived of such a provocative combination in his wildest times at El Bulli (or “El Bulimia”, as I often think of the legendary Catalan home of molecular cuisine). Then I admonished myself: chances are you’re going to be offered this only once in your life, so seize the day! The Spudulike woman topped the confection off with a slice of lemon; I requested a cup of tea and the bill came to £6.75. Struck by the expense, I did what anyone else would do and asked her – purely rhetorically – what she was earning. You’re on minimum wage, right? To which she assented. Assuming she received tax credits, this meant that she would’ve had to work for an hour in order to afford this most nugatory of repasts. One thing’s for certain, the U in Spud-U-Like doesn’t stand for “unionised”.

Out in the middle of the triangular-shaped food court my teenager was eating his cir - cular meal. It was a scary place, this food court: a postmodern horn concerto of blaring bleached-blond wood-laminate flooring; atop brushed aluminium stanchions were uplights in frosted-blue-glass shades the same shape as General Sir Mike Jackson’s surgically excised eye-bags. In the mid-distance there was a statuette of an etiolated nude girl doing something with a ribbon. Virgin Active, I thought. Still, my food was of a piece with the surroundings, the prawn cocktail and grated cheese just so much bowdlerised detailing absorbed into the vernacular potato.

I tried eating it. It tasted chemical, certainly, with high notes of petrol and Jeyes Fluid, but if it had tasted too good I might’ve begun to worry. As it was, the Spudulike experience had a refreshing honesty about it. I suppose a more combative diner might’ve interrogated these suspicious and soused prawns: whither comest thou? But the prawns would’ve been entirely within their rights to reject me out of hand, purely on the basis that I was sitting in the scary food court. Somewhere on the ocean bed there’s probably a fast-food outlet for crustaceans called Humanuhate, or possibly Human-U-Hate.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

Almeida Theatre
Show Hide image

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.