Beetle juice

Design byHugh Aldersey-Williams

Drive the new Theorem. It's a good little runner, the Theorem. It goes like this. The design of cars, once a bulwark of national cultures, has become homo-genised. Great tribes have been brought low before the new global market. Once, Coventry no less than Stratford was part of Britain's heritage. Abingdon, where they made MGs, might have been Tintagel. Now they are no more, gone in spirit or in fact. Rover is BMW. Jaguar is Ford. It's the same everywhere. Czech Skoda lost its identity to Volkswagen; now Spain's Seat is getting the makeover. All in aid of the trite universalism implied by the name Mondeo.

I could be wrong. You see, I don't really know much about cars. I just don't have the motor neurones that are standard issue for male design writers in this country. So when, for example, Stephen Bayley says you can't trust somebody who drives a Montego, I have to believe him. As for me, for more than a decade I have driven the same Ford Fiesta XR2. I am neither ashamed nor proud of this fact, and if this announcement has a confessional tone, it's not intentional. To make matters worse, my other car's a bicycle. This possibly shameful history makes me a prime target for the companies selling a new generation of small cars, the Ford Ka, the Mercedes A Class, or the others that are trying to buck the globalisation trend.

Most notable, though scarcely the best designed in this latter category, is the Smart car, the long-awaited joint venture between Daimler-Benz and SMH, the company that makes Swatch watches. It was always an improbable liaison: the solid conservatism of Mercedes and the cheap flippancy of Swatch. Neither company seems especially proud of its creation. The Smart has its own brand symbol, but nothing to identify its parentage. It's certainly no Mercedes, and despite a few token gestures it lacks the frivolity of a Swatch. Its genesis was troubled, too, not least by failure to pass the "moose test" in those countries where such creatures are expected to stray on to the highway. (The test is to swerve to avoid one, not to see if you can fit it into the boot for several weeks of roadkill gourmandism.) The engineering modifications that were subsequently necessary have done nothing for the vehicle's driving qualities.

More presentable is the new Volkswagen Beetle. Its arrival in the United States was sufficiently noteworthy to prompt a paean from Paul Goldberger - not one of the auto eroticists among design critics - in the New Yorker. Its designers have pulled off a tricky feat, paying homage to the pensionable original, but miraculously streamlining its form to create an entirely plausible contemporary vehicle. Compromises were made as the designers struggled to fit a Beetle shape on to a Golf platform. But if the result works like a Golf and looks like a Beetle, then it has got a lot more right than most cars.

The new Beetle's critical success - at £15,000, the volk have yet to vote with their wallets - has thrown other manufacturers into a quandary. BMW is to revamp one of its famous old models, and is apparently dithering about whether to look forward or back. Only recently would such a question even have been asked. Rover is to resurrect the Riley name. If only it had been big in the States and somebody had put it in a movie, perhaps the Morris Minor, like the Beetle, could have been warmed over for the end of the millennium, too. Volkswagen's development is in tune with the new rhetoric of marketing.

The talk is no longer of heritage and tradition, or even of brand values, but of genes and evolution. BMW advertisements use the traces from DNA tests as background artwork. The geneticist Steve Jones makes scientifically silly claims for Renault. The family resemblance passed down through some brands makes it easy to believe there are car chromosomes. The new Beetle is clearly its father's son. Last year, the Design Museum staged an exhibition of the Porsche dynasty, showing how three generations, all called Ferdinand Porsche, had developed the look of the car by taking advantage of improved technology while retaining its essential identity.

It doesn't always work. Take the London taxi. A previous new model, the boxy Westminster, was heartily loathed. The latest version attempts to respect the original but to make it more contemporary. The result is a sad compromise like the traditional taxi melted under a grill for a few minutes. Others try to ignore the genes. This is why the vile Lotus Elise - notwithstanding its selection as a "Millennium Product" - is a poor successor to the Elan and Esprit.

The biological metaphor extends to the limit of current science. Inevitably, there is the threat of "genetically modified" cars as manufacturing conglomerates essay ill-advised brand crosses: the next Rover may have a BMW grille. Even car shapes are becoming more "natural". The Citroen C3, the Fiat Seicento and the new Fords as well as the resurrected Beetle are composed of overlapping bubbles, like three-dimensional Venn diagrams. Against all expectations, it seems the spirit is returning to car design. No car these days comes from the genius stylist at his (always his) drawing board. The Ford Focus, as its name confesses, notoriously involved focus groups in its conception. In the designer's demonology, of course, focus groups are the death knell of creativity. But the Focus actually looks different. What its appearance suggests is that focus groups are not as powerful as is generally supposed. They can be manipulated or ignored. Perhaps this explains new Labour's fascination with them: they offer the appearance of attending to consumers' wishes while letting the designer or politician carry on regardless.

The Ford Ka and now the Focus look novel alongside the Fiesta and the Escort. But alongside the new Beetle or the Smart, they suddenly look almost dull. This must be Ford's hope. The company does not need a cult but a mass-market success for a decade or more. Police forces around the country are ordering the Focus. There could be no better indication that Ford is on the way to its goal.

Maybe the tide of globalisation is on the turn. The Theorem may not be for everybody. Watch out for the Lemma, the hatchback version due out next year.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet

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.