Money, money, money

Plot and dialogue are incidental to this cash-in on Abba's back catalogue

<strong>Mamma Mia! (P

"Thank you for the music" is unlikely to be the sentiment on the lips of theatregoers surveying the West End in the nine years since the opening in London of Mamma Mia! the musical. This shoehorned Abba's songs into a spurious storyline, and, since then, the bandwagon has been heaving with back-catalogue cash-ins from Queen, Rod Stewart, Madness and Take That. All this has made a handful of people very wealthy, including Ben Elton, who wrote the Queen and Rod Stewart ones, presumably to divest himself of those last pesky crumbs of dignity on his CV.

But the trend has done less to enrich the modern musical, turning it instead into a clothes line on which tried-and-tested songs can be pegged willy-nilly. Yes, I know Dennis Potter had his characters lip-syncing to pre-existing ditties, but those numbers were extensions and expressions of the inner drama. Underneath the songs, Mamma Mia!, on stage or now in its film version, is still just a clothes line.

Meryl Streep plays Donna, the owner of a modest hotel on the island of Kalokairi that employs locals whose sole purpose is to make up the numbers in dance routines, or to chip in on backing vocals. (They're a literal Greek chorus.) Unbeknownst to Donna, her fatherless daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is marrying Sky (Dominic Cooper), has sent wedding invitations to three of Donna's old flames in the hope of finding out which one is her pa. Will it be the buttoned-up banker Harry (Colin Firth), the rugged free spirit Bill (Stellan Skarsgård) or Sam the suave businessman (Pierce Brosnan)?

Brosnan is one of the best things here. He can't sing - someone should revoke his licence to trill - but he believes he can, and that's what counts. The rest of this heavyweight cast proves to be a mild liability. Whereas the stage version was performed by jobbing actors, the film is festooned with stars who plough industrial amounts of zeal into bringing to life scenes that were only ever intended as filler. Let's not pretend that anyone goes to Mamma Mia! for the plot or dialogue - that would be rather like watching Co-Ed Vixens Get Naked III just to see if the handyman with the mullet ever gets around to fixing that faulty boiler.

Of course, there's the music, which can withstand anything: after the apocalypse, there'll just be cockroaches whistling "Fernando". Still, very few of the songs fit the film's context. When Donna's friends Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski) find her crying in the toilet, they don't ask what the matter is - they just sing a ropey version of "Chiquitita" at her, which hardly seems an adequate response. Only one song is actually improved - the sleazy "Does Your Mother Know?", which always sounded like a paedophile's lament, but is rehabilitated here by a simple gender switch, with Tanya delivering it to a priapic young beach bum who's been pestering her.

The most successful numbers are those that don't badger us with office-party vulgarity. "The Winner Takes It All", which Streep belts out belligerently on a clifftop as though it's a deleted scene from Wuthering Heights, is like Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage in song form. And "Slipping Through My Fingers", a knife-twisting lyric about watching your child growing up, is delivered very tenderly by Streep; it had this parent coming over all maudlin and contemplating an overdose of cough syrup. But it's rare that the film and its music seem in sync.

Let's be realistic. I wasn't expecting Pennies from Heaven. But did the picture have to be chopped up into 1980s-style montages that make you certain Simon Le Bon will arrive on a yacht any minute wearing loafers and no socks? Did the cast have to overemote every line as though it was a set piece in itself, so that the actual musical numbers provide respite by comparison? And did it really have to be lit like a Pontin's disco? Despite the director Phyllida Lloyd's bullying way with the camera, the on-screen merriment looks forced and far away, as though we're observing it through one of those seaside telescopes - only this one doesn't go black when your three minutes is up. More's the pity.

Pick of the week

The Apartment (PG)

dir: Billy Wilder

Another lap of honour for the 1960 romantic comedy.

Memories of Underdevelopment (15)

dir: Tomás Gutiérrez Alea

Political turmoil in Cuba in this 1968 masterpiece.

The Visitor (15)

dir: Tom McCarthy

Richard Jenkins excels as an American professor who befriends an immigrant couple.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 14 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, ‘I’ll leave when I finish the job’

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.