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Christopher Hitchens: The state of Spain

Madrid, 1976: Hitchens files a report following the death of Franco.

The death of Francisco Franco on 20 November 1975 was a pivotal moment for Spain - the dictator had been in power since the 1930s. His successor was Prince Juan Carlos, who oversaw the transition to democracy. On 9 January 1976, Hitchens filed a report from Madrid.

According to the laws of aerodynamics, the bumblebee cannot fly. According to such crude political laws as we possess, the Spanish regime should fall apart. But nothing has really changed in Spain except the consciousness of the population. There have been false dawns before, notably after the climb-down over the Burgos executions in 1970; but Franco's demise has opened a Pandora's box of expectations. The villages of Don Benito and Fregenal de la Serena are agricultural communities close to the Portuguese border. In 1972 there were mass arrests there on charges of illegal association and propaganda. A month ago, after last November's indulto (pardon) which Spaniards refer to as the insulto, all charges were dropped. Villagers interviewed by the foreign press were jubilant and unabashed. 'Now they must pardon everybody' was the refrain. And after? 'we must have political freedom and political parties'. Amnesty touches almost everybody in Spain, because the demand for it comprises prisoners, exiles, blacklisted workers and dismissed academics. It is simple, obvious and popular: the regime will not grant it. As Camacho said to me, pardons have come several times before (as when, for instance, a Pope dies) but there has been no general amnesty, and liberal ministers have appeared before without inaugurating change. 'Franco could have done all this in 1959', he says, 'but now you can smell freedom in the streets even if you cannot hold it in your hand.'

Whether or not the Spanish spring will fester and die in the womb or kick and break the waters remains to be seen. Forty years of the prison-house and death which can still not be counted have made the Left almost 'stir-happy'; too optimistic at any prospect of concessions. The present cabinet is to Franco was Caetano was to Salazar - a tentative and fumbling effort at a manipulated democracy, which will end up pleasing nobody. Manuel Fraga, the new Minister of the Interior (and former ambassador to London) simply wants to have the opposition where he can see them. As a pragmatist he realised that the ultra-right 'bunker' of extremist clerical, military and fascist groups cannot be allowed to last. But as an old Falangist himself he dare not legalise the communists nor concede to the nationalist renaissance among Basques and Catalans. Men more intelligent than Fraga - which is extravagant claim - have literally come apart trying to ride these two horses before. The following is an account of how various groups in Spain reckon his chances of success.

For economists, the situation is very grave indeed. Spain is dangerously dependent on the vagaries of the international marker, with a threatening recession and a probable 5 per cent unemployment, excluding the million or so driven abroad to stoke the boilers of the Common Market. With the new mood of confidence demonstrated in several strikes, the Spanish worker mat not take easily to reduced standards and Spanish business is fed up being snubbed by the EEC for its fascist connections. Returning migrant workers are unlikely to revert to passivity either.

For left socialists like Dr Tierno Galvan the position is one of opportunity. 'There are perhaps 10,000 people who control capital in this country', he told me, 'and this permits a very broad alliance of white- and blue-collar workers against the oligarchy.' His own Popular Socialist Party is outside the Socialist International and, as he says, 'the new rulers want democracy to save their own class interest; we want it in order to be able to destroy them'.

For the social democrats, the new situation revives memories of their previous power among workers and intellectuals. A member of the central committee of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party), recently released from detention, told me that they thought the could repeat the electoral success of Mario Soares, but would refuse legislation of their party unless the same rights were extended to everybody else.

For nationalists all talk of reform is meaningless unless Basques and Catalans and Galicians are given back at least the autonomous right which they could claim before the fascist victory. In Barcelona last week a football victory against Madrid flooded the Ramblas with Catalan flags and subversive slogans. An illegal press conference that previous night had announced that a Catalan Assembly and Council could between them now claim the support of almost every political party and social group in the region (or 'nation' as its partisans remind one). All the opposition parties, whether in Madrid or in exile, now recognise the strength of this movement and incorporate its demands into their own programmes. The communists, who are always organisationally ahead of everybody else, even operate under different party names in the three areas concerned.

In the army, there is a cruel and unusual division. One part of it, and the senior part at that, is of course loyal to the bloody traditions of Franco and the aggrandisement of the armed forces that he was always careful to insist upon. Liberal voices at this level - such as Diez Alegria, the former chief of staff dismissed after a visit to Romania - are very muted. Most of the Left prefer not to think about it, but Ruiz Jimenez, a former Franco minister and now Spain's leading limousine liberal, speculated to me that an army intervention could be provoked by any move to grant nationalist demands, any move to precipitate changes in the law, or any attempt to legalise the Communist Party.

The machismo of the officer class is very sensitive indeed - in wartime the Spanish army runs away and in peacetime it shoots the troublesome elements in the population. This is why the opposition forces in the machine have to concentrate on what they call 'active neutrality'. At a recent clandestine meeting, spokesmen for the highly illegal and much prosecuted UDM (Military Democratic Union) claimed to have helped stop an army contingency plan to round up opposition leaders after Franco died. They also claim 1,000 members, and most of these are obviously young officers with university backgrounds or university wives. Nine of their suspected sympathisers face trail by military court, and it is noticeable that five of them are captains on the general staff, and all of them have impeccable military records - in one case a father who volunteered for Nazi service on the bitter Russian front. Like very many Spaniards, the UDM protests are the sell-out by el rey cretino of the defenceless people of the Spanish Sahara. 'We promised these people food and supplies,' said their spokesman, 'but abandoned them to King Hassan'. Juan Carlos may regret this clever betrayal even more than the ones he plans for the future. But, for now the army is the great unknown in Spanish politics. For instance, the five militants executed in November were convicted by a military court but shot my a police firing squad. The general opinion was that the army did not want the odium of the task, but had to fulfil the legal duties laid upon it by the anti-terrorist legislation, which is being used to fill up the prisons as quickly as they are emptying.

Bargaining Counters

The liberals and the communists, both of whom need each other desperately and both of whom spend a large portion of the time reassuring each other that they are not as liberal/communist as they are painted, are playing a waiting game. Waiting games are what they are both good at, and they are the best organised forces in Spain. They already have an embryonic political world in which to operate; a world composed of chain-smoking radical professors and journalists, highly motivated members of the professions, self-educated workers and, as everywhere else in Iberia, shoals of eager reformist lawyers. Madrid must be the world capital of opportunism today - with everybody establishing credentials for the morrow. The liberals and Christian Democrats (who have renamed themselves the Democratic Left) use the potential power of communism as a bargaining counter with the regime Ruiz Jimenez was extremely frank about arguing 'If not us, them'.

The communists, too, are able to make their views known through intermediaries. During a recent visit to Paris, the Count of Motrico as Foreign Minister of Spain made a speech in which he said that if Santiago Carillo wanted his passport back he could apply for it like any other Spaniard, and the fact the he was general secretary of the CP would make no difference to the outcome. On his return Motrico was howled down and pilloried in the 'Parliament', his protestations that he was against legalising communists going unheard.

In an interview with the Italian leftist paper Il Manifesto some weeks ago, Carillo spoke of re-opening Communist Party offices in major town and daring the regime to do anything about it. No more had been heard of this plan since. But the Party does propose to begin work within the government sponsored trade unions, and establish a base from which they can strike when the opportunity presents itself. Camacho and the other worker organisers are in disagreement with this plan, preferring to revive the illegal commissions. The difference is an important one, because as Camacho told me, the Portuguese Left began its period of error by insisting on a unified and centralised trade union federation. He did not actually say 'under the control of the Communist Party' but everybody with any experience known that to be true of Lisbon trade unions, and knows that the behaviour of the Stalinists in Portugal has been a grave embarrassment to their allegedly more liberal Spanish brothers (who received a visit from Alvaro Cunhal in 1968 to tell them that the Kremlin expected more loyalty to the Moscow line over Czechoslovakia). There are other reasons, too, for the communists to bank on a liberal-democratic opening in Spain, and one of these is that the less turbulent the process the less trouble and challenge they can expect from the extreme Left, who put Carillo and others to the trouble of shooting them last time things got out of control under the Republic.

On the extreme Right, there is a period of phoney war. They still have an untried reserve strength which nobody much wants to calculate. It includes the Brigada Politico-Social (BPS) of the security forces, which covers secret police operations. It includes most of the leaders of Guardia Civil and several leading generals in the army (who had the opportunity to talk to General Pinochet when he became the only head of state to attend Franco's funeral.) It includes a certain section of the Church, spoken for chiefly by Bishop Guerra Campos. And it disposes of scatter of para-military and para-police terrorist groups, who operate with almost total immunity. Fraga was even compelled to make a speech just before Christmas in which he publicly warned the police to stay out of politics. But not one prosecution has been brought against any of these groups, although they have thousands of acts of violence to their credit. The only action ever taken against the fascists was when the squadirsti of Cruz Iberica made the civil blunder of robbing a bank. Otherwise, the police just fold their arms or put on civilian clothes and join in the fun.

Political Violence

In an open election the extreme Right would certainly be humiliated. And their current strategy is an embarrassment to the Spanish Establishment. Blas Pinar, the head of Fuerza Nueva and most prominent rightist spokesman, coined the slogan, 'Communists are like barbarians - they always need somebody to open the gate'. This commits him and his friends to denouncing every liberal bishop, every foreign influence and every reformist minister.

So the potential for violence on the Right is ignored by almost everybody, because it would upset everybody's plans. The Left parties in their manifestos do not even go so far as to demand the disbanding of the political police, though the call for amnesty is an empty one otherwise. And the political police are still bust about their tasks - they tortured Ricardo Tellez so badly in Barcelona the other day (for his trade union activities) that he is not expected to recover. And during the curfew and clampdown in the Basque provinces last autumn, they ran a riot of arbitrary arrest, physical brutality and general intimidation. At one point, even the French government had to protest that Spanish policemen were coming over the border as 'hit-men' for Basque political activists living in France. For the so-called 'civilised Right' this kind of activity, with its attendant marching songs, salutes, symbols and slogans is deeply alarming in more than one way. It serves, above all, to remind people what are the real historical origins of this regime, and that is one file which they would rather remained shut.

The Other Spain

'Few Spaniards,' wrote Orwell in Homage to Catalonia, 'possess the damnable consistency that a modern totalitarian state needs.' So while the right is puking up the undigested fascism of the last generation, the new-look Establishment ponders the problem of how to be a little bit democratic. Because the appetite for change notoriously increased with the eating, and because the new galère have few of the semi-religious beliefs and superstitions about the Spanish 'crusade' which their predecessors displayed, nobody is betting heavily on their chances. The current crew simply exhibit a holy concern for their own skins. (And those, by the way, who keep saying 'look what Franco did for Spain' must now explain why it is that the minute he expired his heirs looked around for the safest and quickest way to dismantle his legacy.)

The leader of the Christian Democrats in Catalonia, Anton Canellas, said to me as we parted that 'three forces lost the Civil War - the working class, the Basques and the Catalans'. His own party was among them, and its leader executed without trial. It does not take a very long memory for that to stick, or any great political acumen to see that the three forces mentioned are now potentially strongest in Spain, with between them most of the industry, most of the modern ideas, most of the political skill and the support of the best among intellectuals and middle-class dissenters. Basques and Catalans are now 'allowed' to use their own languages again (thought not for official purposes) and workers have been 'permitted' to hold open meetings and marches without being truncheoned and shot. But nobody forgets the truth of Eugene V. Debs's remark that the man who can let you out of prison is the man who has the power to put you back again. In their demented fashion the Right wing are perfectly correct. Liberalisation and relaxation are the curtain-raisers for more profound and revolutionary changes, and once the Francoist system starts to unravel it will be impossible to prevent those who bore the heat and burden of the day - the other Spain - from claiming what is theirs. 1975 was the centenary of Antonio Machado, who died in wretched exile in 1939. Newspapers recall that he wrote:

Espanolito que vienes
al mundo, te guarde Dios
una de las dos Espanas
ha de colarte el corazon

'Young Spaniard who comes into the world, may God protect you. One of the two Spains will chill your heart'. The Right may find out just as quickly as the Left that there is nothing so bad as a weak king.

Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was an author and journalist. He joined the New Statesman in 1973.

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.