Roll over, Berlin

William Cook finds Germany in microcosm at Bonn’s Beethovenfest.

It's a windy Monday night in Bonn and the streets are full of autumn leaves - but the Beethovenhalle is packed with people, spilling into the foyer and on to the lush green lawn outside. They've come to this stylish, modern concert hall to see one of the highlights of the Beethovenfest, held every year in the city where Beethoven was born. Yet this isn't just a first-class music festival. It's a microcosm of German history that mirrors the recent ups and downs of Bonn and Germany as a whole.

The first Beethovenfest was held, amid much pomp and ceremony, in 1845. Liszt was the guest conductor and Queen Victoria unveiled a statue of the great composer which still stands in Bonn's main square. The next festival was in 1871, the year Germany became a unified nation state. In the 1930s, it became a vehicle for Nazi propaganda. Revived after the war, amid the ruins of a bombed-out city, it grew in tandem with Bonn's new role as capital of the Bundesrepublik. When the capital returned to Berlin after 40 years, the festival fell into decline but, for the past ten years, it has been flourishing. This year's festival boasts more than 100 events in 25 venues, ranging from palaces to Bierkellers, with visitors from as far afield as Israel and Japan.

In a concert reflecting the internationalism of this year's Beethovenfest, András Schiff, the Hungarian-born British pianist, conducts his own orchestra drawn from all over Europe. And yet the programme is resolutely German - a bewitching set of variations by Brahms on a theme by Haydn (who taught Beethoven in Vienna), a Haydn symphony, and finally Beethoven's triumphant Piano Concerto No 3 in C Minor, a bridge between what Brahms did afterwards and what Haydn had done before. For a second encore (after a second standing ovation), Schiff plays the second movement of Mozart's Piano Concerto in E Major - almost childlike in its simplicity. It's a tender tribute to the man who began the journey that Beet­hoven completed, from the ancien régime into the modern age.

Ever since Beethoven's day, Bonn has been a sleepy place, so its choice as capital of West Germany was eccentric yet inspired. A quaint market town on the French side of the Rhine, it was as far away as possible (in both senses) from Hitler's Hauptstadt, Berlin. Yet, as theWirtschaftswunder kicked in and West Germany became Europe's biggest economy (and Nato's front line against the nuclear might of the Warsaw Pact), this little outpost acquired a global importance completely out of keeping with its modest size.

Throughout the cold war, Bonn epitomised the image that West Germany wanted to project to a suspicious world - pleasant, provincial, even a little bit boring. But despite its humdrum demeanour, the city has hidden depths. Marx studied here (and was imprisoned here for rowdy revelling) and the university - situated in wonderfully palatial premises in the heart of the town - is still the cultural centre of this midget metropolis.

Bonn's most celebrated son also suited West Germany's public image - classless, liberal, international. Since reunification, his significance has grown and grown. In a country where so many cultural icons are tainted by association, Beethoven presents no problems. He has none of Wagner's baggage. He is a hero Germans can celebrate without apology or shame. Since the capital returned to Berlin, Bonn has made the transition from Hauptstadt to Kulturstadt. Beethoven is central to the new role.

The Adenauerallee used to be distinguished by its embassies. Now, it is distinguished by its museums - the Haus der Geschichte (a time tunnel through the history of the Bundes­republik) and the sleek, new Kunstmuseum with work by Gerhard Richter, Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke. The current display includes a poignant retrospective of the mesmeric paintings of August Macke, who was killed on the Western Front in 1914 at the age of 27. Macke's house/studio (also in Bonn) reopens in October after extensive renovation.

On my last evening, I attend a piano recital at the Kanzlerbungalow, which once served as the offices of the West German chancellor, then dash across town for a concert by the Geister Trio - two muscular works by Beethoven and a haunting piece by Shostakovitch, written in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

The long shadow of the Shoah is never entirely absent from even the most joyous events in Germany - but the recognition of that shadow is part of what makes modern Germany so vibrant. The Beethovenfest is a festival with a proper understanding of the past and that is what makes it a living event, rather than a tame piece of nostalgia.

Bonn's Beethovenfest runs until 9 October. For more information visit:

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

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.