Neds and Black Swan

Portraying a troubled mind requires skill, not overkill.

The coming-of-age film hinges on the reassuring lie that transformative moments can be packaged into a "What I did on my summer holidays" class assignment, rather than occurring incrementally over a lifetime. What makes Peter Mullan's Neds, set among Glasgow street gangs in the 1970s, such an unusual example of the genre is its reluctance to pinpoint precisely when its young protagonist, John McGill, veers away from academic excellence and towards criminality, or even to offer much distinction between them.

John is played by two newcomers, each riveting in different ways. Gregg Forrest, pure and breakable as a bottle of milk, covers young adolescence, when John is a timid goody-goody. He passes the baton - or the saucepan, granite headstone or any of the other weapons he later wields - to Conor McCarron. This imposing 17-year-old resembles an overgrown baby that has had to punch its way out of the womb.

Neds covers similar ground to the 1996 film Small Faces, which also concerned bright boys mixed up in Glasgow gang culture, but it turns out that this town is big enough for the both of them. Whereas Small Faces used its hero's creativity to provide a hint of salvation, Neds demonstrates that cleverness can be its own prison. When John achieves top marks, he has to stand on his chair as a glowing example to his classmates. The academic endorsement represents social death. That'll teach him.

In time John becomes a sophisticated student of intimidation. He is happy to pretend he can't translate a Latin phrase, even if it means being lashed with a belt. That way, he gets to save face and to taunt the encouraging Latin master who has such faith in him. It's a peculiarity of Neds that even its graphic violence can't eclipse the everyday cruelties perpetrated in the classroom by teachers and pupils alike.

Five years on from being teacher's pet, John is a thug stalking the streets with glinting blades strapped to his wrists, like a Glaswegian Freddy Krueger. Far from sacrificing his intelligence, he has channelled it into a new outlet. When he wants to make a point, he doesn't hurl a brick through a window, but chooses a missile that will have particular resonance for the victim. His violence is anything but mindless. He puts some thought into it.

Brutality runs in the family. His elder brother Benny (Joe Szula) is a notorious tough nut, and though John appears to have nothing in common with him, that isn't the same thing as refusing to benefit from his reputation. When John is bullied, Benny drags the culprit into the bushes below his bedroom window as if in preparation for a serenade. Like a Roman emperor, John must decide on his persecutor's fate with a turn of the thumb. Violence is a stench that sticks to John even before he can smell it himself.

Mullan displayed a taste for absurdism in his first film, Orphans. Neds is a more despairing vision, but it, too, trades in a warped reality. Mullan's musical choices, such as Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" during a gang fight, can be self-consciously ironic, but everything else is just slightly, gloriously "off". An embrace between John and a statue of Christ turns nasty when the Messiah lands a right hook on him. An urchin on a school trip to a safari park is warned by a ranger to stay in the van because of the lions, and spits back: "Fuck off, I'm not gonnae touch your lions!" John alone sees everything with a piercing clarity. Neither a Ned ("non-educated delinquent") nor likely to escape his surroundings, he falls between any number of stools and is smart enough to know it.

The profound closing shot of Neds reminds you that film-makers and audiences need not fear ostentatious symbolism, which is just as well in the light of Black Swan. Darren Aron­ofsky's film shares with his last picture, The Wrestler, a fascination with the masochism of performance. It portrays the physical and psychological breakdown suffered by a young dancer, Nina (Natalie Portman), who lands the lead in a New York City Ballet production of Swan Lake. She is so shrill and twitchy to begin with that hers is not so much a descent into madness as a sideways shuffle. Caught between a demanding mother (Barbara Hershey), the company's sadistic director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), a carefree rival dancer (Mila Kunis) and an over-the-hill soloist (Winona Ryder), she is in a tizzy even before she starts sprouting swan feathers. (On the plus side, she could always get a nice eiderdown out of the experience.)

Aronofsky's camera responds to Nina's mental state with a schlocky visual overkill that makes a mockery of comparisons with Roman Polanski. (Black Swan has the same relationship to Repulsion as lift muzak has to Tchaikovsky.) Skin peels, blood drips, paintings come to life: the higher the hallucinations are piled, the less we notice them. Maybe that's why I responded so warmly to the pianist who flounces out of rehearsal, telling Nina: "I've got a life. You work too hard." Sanity at last. The film could always have a future as the Showgirls of ballet; Tomas's advice to Nina - "Go home and touch yourself. Live a little!"- certainly won't hurt. But as an insight into art, sexuality and perfectionism, or even just as a psychological thriller, it represents an unreasonable lowering of the barre.

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 24 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, State of Emergency

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.