The Headless Woman (12A)

A psychological thriller with a political dimension impresses Ryan Gilbey.

Near the Argentinian town of Salta, a middle-aged woman named Vero (short for Verónica) is driving along a deserted road when her car hits something. Or is it someone? Vero (María Onetto) can't be sure - she was distracted by her mobile phone at the point of impact. She stops, but a glance in the rear-view mirror fails to clear up the matter. The shape slumped at the roadside could be a child or an animal. Whatever it is, its best days are behind it. Vero pauses long enough for thoughts of self-preservation to kick in. Then she releases the brake and drives off. So begins The Headless Woman, a remarkable psychological thriller with a poli­tical dimension.

After that first sequence, which ranks as a killer opening in both senses, Vero starts to lose her mind almost imperceptibly. She goes to the hospital for an X-ray but wanders off without waiting for the results. She practically sleepwalks into a casual assignation in the world's ugliest hotel. She takes a seat in the waiting room of a dental surgery, until it is pointed out politely that she is, in fact, the dentist. Those nice people smiling indulgently at her are the patients who have been awaiting her arrival.

Along with Vero's marbles, most of the touchstones of a conventional narrative are lost. The era feels hazy, for a start; the technology is bang up to date, but the crummy decor and the Rula Lenska-style feathered hairdos are straight out of the 1970s. Close family members flit in and out of scenes without being introduced and Vero, in her dazed state, seems no more familiar with them than we are. She has a prickly aunt who wonders aloud why everyone in the family goes crazy. "Tell me of one who has died sane!" the old woman demands, which hardly bodes well for Vero. And she has a husband, to whom she confides her secret as they wait their turn in a supermarket queue.

It's fitting that the writer-director Lucrecia Martel should stage this moment of disclosure in such a bland, bright setting. Like The Shining, L'avventura or Regarde la mer, the film drags horror out of the shadows and into the light, the better to interrogate fully the human capacity for cruelty. Bárbara Álvarez's camera presents the disjointed world as Vero sees it; the background is often blurred, the framing tight, creating a narrow perspective that makes us instinctively fearful of what might lie just off-screen. With its preference for intimate close-ups, this is not a sympathetic camera. It hounds Vero, and seems to harbour a fetish for her hair, which it scrutinises as though that platinum nest holds the key to the mystery.

Before the accident, we hear Vero chatting about the effect of chlorine on her locks. Later, she confesses that she cannot remember what her natural colour is, concluding that she must be completely grey. Please don't think I'm underselling the movie when I say that its most chilling moment involves a simple switch in hair colour. Couldn't much the same be said of Vertigo? María Onetto, tall as a window cleaner's ladder, comports herself with a discomfort passed down from Kim Novak in Hitchcock's film, or from Sigourney Weaver in Death and the Maiden and Copycat. There's something both ridiculous and disturbing about seeing such robust, regal women in peril.

Except that Vero, for all her apparent frailty, is no victim. It is her initial act of moral dereliction, and the complicity of those around her
in concealing any evidence of it, which fester at the core of the picture. Martel's film is not concerned with whom or what it was that got mowed down on that balmy afternoon, but with Vero's refusal to confront her actions. (The glimpses of barely acknowledged non-Caucasian workers at the film's margins hint at an entire class from which she has wilfully turned away.) The Headless Woman functions as a specific allegory of Argentina's own history of the "disappeared", and Martel has said that the use of 1970s pop songs should stir memories of the dictatorship among Argentinian audiences. But the film comments more broadly on those daily, even hourly, betrayals that we are prone to commit in the interests of a quiet life. A low hum of menace comes off the screen, never rising in pitch, yet never entirely subsiding either. Like guilt.

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 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN

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.