Girls just wanna have fun

Having None of It

Suzanne Franks <I>Granta, 196pp, £12.99</I

To read a feminist book was once to hear the stamp of insurrectionist boots. How the sound of sisters on the march has changed. Natasha Walters' prose resounds with the sound of designer sling-backs as she celebrates the bonding of femininity and power in The New Feminism; and it's the clatter of those "fuck-me shoes" that you hear in Suzanne Moore's wised-up polemics. By contrast, Suzanne Franks' brand of feminism is more of a soft-shoe shuffle. I don't know what she looks like, but I picture her in loafers, sitting near the front of a social studies seminar.

Having None of It is a well-researched book, tackling one of the most provocative issues of our time: why work isn't working for women. It presents a depressing picture of the trap in which many ambitious women now find themselves - "We did the guy thing, and the guy thing sucked!" as New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen pithily wrote. Suzanne Franks' premise is that the demands of market capitalism, and those of the family, for which women still take primary responsibility, are in terminal conflict. At the top end of the job market, women combine careers and families in a work culture increasingly based on long hours. At the bottom end, women, particularly single mothers, are trapped by low wages, inaccessible childcare and a government convinced that work will bring them social salvation.

Franks convincingly argues that equal opportunities policies have made it, paradoxically, more difficult for women to speak out against discrimination. She talks to an anonymous civil servant who confirms what many women already suspect: that "the battle is lost if we are identifying the pressure point for changing . . . workplace policies as a women's matter". And she puts the case for keeping single mothers at home with their children, rather than packing them off to work.

Yet reading the book is a bit like wandering down an unsign-posted cul-de-sac: you stumble around, expecting to see a way out at the next curve, but you never do. Franks raises problems, but offers no solutions. "If the most pressing question of our age is how a deregulated market economy can be reconciled with social cohesion," she asks, "where do women fit in this conundrum?" We are never offered an answer.

The walk down the cul-de-sac does have a purpose, however. Franks' anatomy of the problem is fascinating in itself. Did you know, for example, that professional women under the age of 24 work the longest hours of any category and any age group - seven hours more per week than young male professionals? Or that one million British women in their thirties, nearly one third of the total, are single? Or that Frank Field, the former minister for social security, complained that in the contemporary labour market women are finding jobs at the expense of men?

There are statistics in abundance; Franks is nifty with a calculator, deftly totalling the deductions and net amounts of a woman's lifespan. Every contentious statement is supported by a blizzard of statistics. Yet the book impresses most when it concentrates on individuals. Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, the Foreign Office high-flier denied a plum ambassadorial role, tells Franks that the issue is about "being at the top and wanting to be treated equally, not being treated as somebody who has been granted a privilege . . . It has to do with deeply subtle human things."

You want to hear more about such things; about, for example, the partner in a top-five City law firm who speaks anonymously of the rise of "the young male fascists" - men whose wives do not work and who won't make any concessions to women who do. Who are these men? How did they get that way? More, please, more.

The Oxford professor Susan Greenfield says: "We are going to have to think about how women deal minute-by-minute, day-by-day, with snide remarks and put-downs." Quite right. But it would have been helpful, perhaps, to have been offered examples of ripostes to these "snide remarks and put-downs", even though this might have taken us into the realm of the self-help manual, a place where, it seems, no serious book can go. One can't help regretting this division of genres. Yet, in a way, it's a more honest book than The New Feminism, which described the women's movement as a "uniquely happy story".

There is engaging passion in Franks. You can feel her slow-burning anger when she writes of the Nobel prize-winning economist Gary Becker who argued in 1985 that, "because of all their domestic duties women are more exhausted, which makes them less productive and therefore deserving of less pay". But her passion is not channelled towards positive action. There are many times when the book all but sinks beneath the ballast of academic gobbledegook. And occasionally she is po-faced, as when she berates the Guardian for printing a story on the resignation of a female executive under the headline, "Superwoman's coming home to the family". Doesn't she realise that when a superwoman falls to earth, it is women, as much as men, who put out the bunting? That a rather unattractive part of our psyche demands that these impossibly capable women should achieve a little less?

So what of Franks' conclusion? Well, she delivers this verdict on the final page. "With the formal barriers dismantled, the problem now is to deal with the unintended consequences of a deregulated market economy which according to the capitalist imperative urges ever more consumption." Phew. Anyone willing to have a go?

Grace Bradberry writes for the "Times"

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again

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.