Unreal City

The City of London, Vol III: Illusions of Gold 1914-45

David Kynaston <em>Chatto & Windus, 584pp,

Now that sex has lost its mystery, money is the new rock'n'roll. Or so we are led to believe. Biographers are certainly encouraged to pay as much attention to their subjects' financial as to their love affairs. Families which are happy to expose their forebears' romantic foibles remain reluctant to share details of their bank balances. And what has been the most gripping television series of the summer? Not ITV's mediocre The Sexual Century (which was axed in the middle of its run) but Adam Curtis's films on the economic clout of Jimmy Goldsmith and his fellow punters at the Clermont Club.

David Kynaston understands the lubricity of money. A level-headed economic historian with a talent for narrative and an eye for detail, he has been diligently working his way through the story of the City of London - from Lloyds Coffee House to Starbucks. His current volume (the third in a series of four) covers the troubled years from 1914 to 1945, from the start of the first to the end of the second world war. Its tone is generally downbeat, with little to celebrate as it chronicles Britain's gradual economic decline and the City's faltering efforts to keep pace with the rest of the world.

At the beginning, London still dominates world financial markets; by the end, it lies physically in ruins, laid waste by the Luftwaffe. Throughout this period, the old glory days are epitomised by the puckish Montagu Norman, governor of the Bank of England. He fights a rearguard action to maintain Britain on the gold standard; but as the subtitle notes, these are "illusions of gold". The coming figure is John Maynard Keynes, who argues that false concepts of financial rectitude hold back economic performance and lead to unemployment. There is a telling moment, in 1931, when Britain abandons gold parity (as required by Ramsay MacDonald's incoming National Government). Norman is in mid-Atlantic returning from a gubernatorial trip to Canada. He is informed cryptically by telegram, "Sorry we have to go off tomorrow and cannot wait to see you before doing so." Keynes's ascendancy is underlined when, late in life, in 1942, he joins the Court of the Bank of England.

Kynaston's ability to juggle various balls ensures that this is no turgid textbook. The move from gold is a neat example: he unravels a complicated economic tale, while exploiting the dramatic potential of his two main characters and keeping his eye on underlying historical trends. More generally, he moves seamlessly from deliberations at Barings or the Bank of England to the recollections of a fringe City figure - a junior clerk at a City solicitors or a passing observer, such as the young Cecil Beaton, who worked briefly in his family's timber-broking business and found the atmosphere insufferable. Beaton compared his bowler-hatted colleagues to "a lot of dirty beetles fighting for existence", thought his office smelt like an underground lavatory and was mercifully spared a long-term office career by his ineptitude for "feeguires", as his stern father called them.

As in Kynaston's short book about W G Grace's 50th birthday match (he doubles as a cricket historian), he is firmly on the side of the players rather than the gentlemen. His City is stiffly hierarchical and displays little generosity of spirit. At Morgan Guaranty the staff eat at Joe Lyons and the ABC, while only managers are allowed to grace the tables of Fullers. One jobber, saved from bankruptcy by the prompt action of a clerk who liquidated his American positions shortly before the 1929 Wall Street crash, takes this smart junior to lunch in the unusual luxury of Simpson's. But when the lad orders steak and potatoes, he is told not to bother with the potatoes: "You can spear one of mine."

This colour is complemented by Kynaston's skill as a business reporter, grappling with the City's inter-war scandals, such as the Clarence Hatry affair, and its cosiness towards fascism. The financial markets were no more corrupt than today, although they were less regulated and insider trading was considered a legitimate professional perk. Perhaps it was inevitable that Anglo-German banks should try to put an attractive gloss on Hitler - they had the greatest exposure and were keenest on repayment of old debts. Less obvious is why, in such a short period, Britain's dominant economic influence in South America should have disappeared.

For all Kynaston's skill in coordinating this material, his coup is to show the City as more than merely a mindless engine of money. T S Eliot, one of his many literary sources, was so scarred by working for Lloyds Bank that he berated the "Unreal City" in The Waste Land. Kynaston is more subtle: his Square Mile is an engaging, complicated community with a Dickensian life of its own.

Andrew Lycett's most recent book is "Rudyard Kipling" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

This article first appeared in the 20 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Men vanish from the universities

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.