Trapped in a parallel universe

There has surely never been a time when our papers have devoted more space to what's happening on te

Was Emily Parr racist? For a few days you could read all you wanted on the point, from Allison Pearson's foot-stamping in the Mail (she thought not) by way of the Times's "Turbulent history of the troublesome N-word" to the half-amused reflections of Nirpal Dhaliwal in the Independent on Sunday. It may have been second time around for race on Big Brother, and in a lower key than first time, but the coverage was unstinting.

As unstinting, that is, as could be managed given the demands of responding to the other big story of those days - the departure of Katie Hopkins from The Apprentice.

What did Katie mean for 21st-century womanhood? Was she a new kind of alpha feminist, or a victim of executive sexism, or a selfish, stuck-up bitch, or all three? You could read India Knight on the subject in the Sunday Times, or Suzanne Moore (Mail on Sunday), or Jemima Lewis (Independent), or Janice Turner (Times), or Amanda Platell (Mail), or Lorraine Kelly (Sun). At the Guardian you could read a whole bagful of female commentators on the Katie question in one go, including Lisa Jardine, Hannah Pool, Zoe Williams and our own Kira Cochrane. That's a lot of opinion.

It so happened that, in the same days, Any Dream Will Do, the BBC's public talent show in aid of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Grease Is the Word, ITV's latest Simon Cowell product, were also reaching their climaxes and staking their exciting claims to space in the papers. Did you favour Wannabe A, the gormless talent from nowhere, over Wannabe B, the hunk with the glint in his eye?

And then there was Paris Hilton (and I confess I still can't read those two words without picturing a big hotel near the Eiffel Tower). A weightless, thoughtless creature conjured up by a weightless, thoughtless television series and then left parked in the public consciousness with nothing to say or do, Paris now has to be logged tearfully in and out of jail every other day, often with coverage on the front pages.

Was there ever a time when what happened on television crowded our news and comment pages more? And I don't mean with proper questions like whether Channel 4 was entitled to run its (perfectly valid and responsible) documentary about the Diana crash or whether The Sopranos is the new Shakespeare. I mean those questions thrown out by the mirror-world that is stupidly called reality television.

Reality has so little to do with it. What happened on Big Brother between Emily Parr and Charley Uchea was barely more real than the computer-game gunfight set in Manchester Cathedral that has got Sony into trouble, just as those artfully edited showdowns in Alan Sugar's studio-not-a-boardroom are virtual, unfounded events.

We all know this. Allison Pearson knows it, and so do Nirpal Dhaliwal and Lisa Jardine. So why do papers and writers take these shows seriously? One reason, a crude but powerful one, is the belief among editors that newspapers can't afford not to write about what their readers are talking about. So it's a sort of tango with the reader into the realm of stupidity. Another reason, which the columnists are more likely to advance, is that this is a proxy for reality. What happens between Emily and Charley or between Alan and Katie may not be real, but it is an acting-out of events that do happen in the real world, and so it gives everyone a chance to dissect and understand those events.

By talking about what Emily said, in other words, we are talking about the general problem of casual, conversational racism, and by talking about Katie's choice we are examining the dilemmas of many ambitious working women.

I used to buy this. I thought, and still think, that the Shilpa Shetty affair taught us all some useful lessons. But it is a currency that devalues itself. On the one hand the television producers are trying ever more desperately to repeat the trick, and on the other, we, the viewers and newspaper readers, are now looking out for those easy lessons, expecting and craving them. So both the events and the reactions are steadily becoming more strained and contrived.

It is cheapening to us, and it is surely insulting to people who endure real racism and sexism. Why can't we talk about those people instead?

Shakespeare and the logo

"He hath the falling sickness," said Brutus, to which Cassius replied: "No, Caesar hath it not; but you and I/And honest Casca, we have the falling sickness." Cassius was talking, metaphorically, about epilepsy, an affliction now in the news because of its supposed link to the 2012 Olympic logo.

Had he been around to witness the outrage that greeted the logo, Cassius might well have observed, metaphorically again, that Seb Coe hath not the falling sickness, but you and I, and the writers of all those furious letters to the press, we have it. For, as the FT coolly pointed out, the logo does its job.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Britain - The country Brown inherits

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.