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Exclusive: Patti Smith interview

The legendary singer, who performs at this month's Meltdown, talks about the convictions that drive

At 62, Patti Smith seems to have lived several lives in one. Her first album, Horses (1975), which drew on her background in poetry and performance art, was a literate, feminist approach to rock music that garnered widespread acclaim. Influenced by Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, she has in turn influenced successive generations of musicians, from late-Seventies punk rockers to P J Harvey. Fiercely independent and always at ease in the alpha-male world of rock’n’roll, Smith has never been afraid to speak out about her politics. She is a distinctive figure, a hippie pacifist embraced by wave after wave of music fans.

Smith’s energy as a performer has not diminished with age. Most importantly, perhaps, she is continuously excited by new musicians – which is why she took such pleasure in curating Meltdown at the Southbank Centre in London in 2005. This annual festival allows each curator to invite a sometimes weird but often wonderful mixture of musicians and performance artists. Smith’s line-up included Yoko Ono and Marc Almond. Now Smith returns to Meltdown – curated this year by the jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman – alongside Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra, an experimental Canadian collective with whom she will improvise on stage. There will be no set list; anything might happen on the night.

You’re currently in Florence for a show by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe who, among his achievements, shot the cover of “Horses”. What have you been doing there?
There’s a beautiful exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s photographs, exhibited alongside Michelangelo’s work at the Accademia. I helped to arrange the exhibition. [For the opening] I had to read poetry, speak about Robert’s work and sing in front of the great statue of David, looking out at the other pieces by Michelangelo. I set one of Michelangelo’s sonnets to music. It was quite an evening. It was a perfect way to salute both of them.

Tell us about Meltdown.
To be part of Ornette Coleman’s Meltdown is a real honour. I’m sure it’ll be instructive, so I’m looking forward to it. Flea [the bassist with Red Hot Chili Peppers] is coming over. We’ll do something. Perhaps I’ll be able to do something with Ornette. So it’ll be a lot of improvisation. There’s nothing like improv to keep you mentally flexible. I just adore Ornette. I’m looking forward to hearing him and if there’s any way I can serve him, I’ll be there.

You’ll also be appearing on stage with Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra. Have you played with them before?
I always admired them. I went to Montreal and we actually improvised a whole concert in a Ukrainian meeting hall there. They’re such a mix of beauty and experience. There’s a bit of anarchy attached to what they do, too, so I’m looking forward to seeing what we come up with.

You’re doing a lot of touring this summer. Are you still planning to play in Korea?
I believe so. I haven’t heard any different. I haven’t been before. It’s a music festival, so I consider it that – I’m going to play music. But I’m certain that we will have something to say while we’re there. Usually when I go to a place for the first time, unless there’s something historical or spectacular that nature has to offer, the first thing I like to do is see what’s on the minds of the people. I’ve no idea what they’re thinking about and what the young people’s concerns are. It’s a good way to learn. There will be 20,000 or 30,000 people there, so you can get some sense of what they’re feeling.

Do you have to be careful of what you say in that kind of environment?
No. It’s not careful. I’d just make sure with anything I say I know what I’m talking about. One doesn’t have to be very learned to speak against the build-up of WMDs or nuclear weapons. It’s just simple logic that there’s no need or use for these things in our culture.As human beings we want to live, so we don’t want to use these weapons. All of human society should abolish them.

When we met in Paris last autumn, you were stressed about the imminent US presidential election. How did you feel when Barack Obama was elected?
Ecstatic. First of all to see the Bush administration go, but also to see that our country made a lot of strides politically and psychologically and morally to elect Obama. I’m happy to see in my lifetime that this has happened. But everything is such a mess and so complicated and the Bush administration has created scenarios that are not easily fixed. Our economy has just been shredded. All the things that have happened in the last eight years can’t be untangled in a few months by an idealistic, energetic new man. It’s going to take him quite a while to comprehend first of all what’s happened in the past eight years – or past 16 or 32 – and see what contribution he can make. You can’t patch things up. You can’t put a Band-Aid on things.

Has anything disappointed you about Obama so far?
I’d like to see more compassionate involvement in the Middle East and more comprehension of the needs of the Palestinian people. I don’t think the area of Jerusalem should be part of a Jewish state; it belongs to all people, to Christians and Muslims and the Jewish people. I think it’s criminal that they [some Israelis] think of it as some kind of archaeological playground to build up the case for their own identity.

Do you feel as though you’re a lone voice in terms of musicians being politically outspoken?
If I feel any marginalisation, it’s because the things that concern me aren’t so important to other people. I don’t think the Palestinian people or Afghan children or some other things I’m concerned about are at the top of other people’s agendas – not right now, when America is going through such a recession and people are suffering across the board financially. But I think all that will change. What I say should always be prefaced with this: I’m not really politically articulate. I just try to be like Thomas Paine: what is common sense? So when I say these things to you, I am speaking from a humanist point of view. I just look around and see what’s wrong.

How does that relate back to music?
Well, Ornette Coleman is a real musician. He takes all of the things he’s thinking about in the world – which is a whole universe upon universe – and translates this into music. All of the things we’re talking about can be found in his music in the most literal and abstract way.

Patti Smith performs at the Royal Festival Hall, London SE1, on 18 June. For more details: click here

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

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.