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The White Queen on BBC1: A historical drama that's barely medieval at all

Where are the lantern jaws and bowl haircuts, the suppurating pustules and the decaying teeth? Where is the dirt?

The White Queen

It’s 1464 and, in a forest somewhere in England, the new Yorkist king, Edward IV, is doing his best to get into the knickers – I write metaphorically, as drawers were not invented until the late 18th century – of a Lancastrian widow called Elizabeth Woodville. “I’m mad for you,” he whispers, unbuttoning his flies. “I’m desperate for you,” he pants, reaching deep into his hose.

Most young widows in 1464 would, one assumes, have taken such kingly utterances as commands rather than suggestions, what with Edward being the monarch and all. But Woodville, who looks as though she has strolled straight out of a 1970s ad for Silvikrin, is having none of it. She grabs his dagger and puts it to her throat. She will kill herself rather than let the gorgeous Edward give her a good seeing to – unless he makes her his wife first.

Judging by the number of trailers it has shown for the series, the BBC is very excited about The White Queen (Sundays, 9pm), its gauzy adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The Cousins’ War novels – and on paper it’s not hard to work out why. People love Game of Thrones and they adore Wolf Hall (an adaptation of which is also on the way). The White Queen is a kind of halfway house between the two: no dragons but plenty of scheming and the Tudors just over the horizon. Then you sit down to watch it and all you can think is: “Oh.” I could almost hear myself deflating. The look of the thing! Even the first series of Blackadder was more medieval than this.

Where are the lantern jaws and bowl haircuts, the suppurating pustules and the decaying teeth? Where is the dirt? Woodville’s ancestral manor looks as if Aggie MacKenzie has just run her Dyson over everything. You can almost smell the potpourri. Watching the first episode was like visiting a National Trust property on a re-enactment day. If the camera had accidentally shifted two inches to the right, doubtless we would have copped a good look at a tea room, a garden centre and a car park full of Volvos.

All this is a pity because Woodville and the other women at the saga’s heart – Anne Neville, whose second husband will one day be Richard III, and Margaret Beaufort, the mother of the future Henry VII – are nothing if not fascinating: ambitious, determined and supremely pragmatic. You long to know more about them – the gut truths that only fiction can reveal. But the writing is so drippy and the performances so glossy that they slip, eel-like, from your grasp.

Woodville is played by Rebecca Ferguson, who is Swedish and sounds it (she’d do far better in a live-action remake of Noggin the Nog). Edward IV is played by Max Irons, who looks as though he should be in a boy band or Brideshead Revisited (like his dad). His olive skin speaks of Mallorca, not York (and certainly not of scurvy). James Frain is better cast as Lord Warwick, the kingmaker – his face might have been whittled from oak – but his lines are the hammiest of all, the inevitable lot of the baddie. Janet McTeer is good as Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta, who is a witch as well as a Lancastrian, but so far the absolute star of the show has been the hairstyle worn by Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall): a couple of plaited bat wings so loopily vast that it’s a wonder Henry VI hasn’t chosen to hide in them.

There’s plenty of sex, naturally. And one imagines that in 1464 people did have plenty of sex. What else were they supposed to do in all that darkness? But this is very pretty, poised sex, all gleaming bums and Toast nightgowns. Woodville and the king, following their hush-hush nuptials, might as well have been on a mini-break at a posh hotel, the way they carried on; all their lusty union lacked was a “Do not disturb” sign on the door and breakfast in bed.

The Woodville hunting lodge did not, alas, offer room service, though it wasn’t only for this reason that the king departed for battle hungry. Apparently, he was too much in love to eat, a line that struck me as even more drippy and inauthentic than everything else he said. My guess is that the real Edward probably didn’t send Henry VI into exile on an empty stomach. My guess is that he called for bread and meat and ale and belched loudly, his mouth opening indelicately to reveal a row of black and missing teeth.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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.