Size matters

Cartography - Peter Barber goes in search of Truth and Reality

Most of us have a touching faith in maps. "To put something on the map" is to establish its very existence. Increasingly, people figuratively "map out" phenomena to establish a factual baseline for decision-making. The mathematical accuracy of the features depicted tends to be regarded as the sole determinant of a map's quality. Mathematical accuracy is equated with absolute truth. Maps become "The Truth" and even "The Reality". In 1542, courtiers complained that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V was being diverted from proceeding with the invasion of France because he regarded his enticing map of the country as a substitute; while in the film The Great Dictator, the dictator Hynkel, played by Charlie Chaplin, plays with globes as though he were thereby actually dominating the world.

Yet even the most scientifically produced modern maps have only a tenuous relationship to truth and reality, and many map-makers would not consider that they were doing their job if every feature on their map was depicted with total mathematical accuracy. Indeed, maps could be said to be, in several respects, the most convincing fictions around. However, paradoxically, it is precisely this ability to ignore or distort aspects of reality that is essential for their utility. It is the same feature - their subjectivity - that makes maps so fascinating to a layman with no particular interest in geography.

Clearly, it is impossible to reproduce total reality in reduced form - so you have to choose what features, out of the myriad possibilities, you wish to represent. Then, if it is sufficiently important for your intended purpose, you may choose to exaggerate its size. You will add symbols instead of realistic representations, and words by way of clarification. So subjectivity comes in by the front door.

This is well illustrated by the recently published London Photographic Atlas. Compare the aerial photographs on the first 295 pages with the conventional A-Z-style maps that follow. You will immediately see that the roads on the maps are much clearer than those on the last group of photographs, even though a single map covers twice as much ground. You can read the street names, but most of the buildings and trees are missing. Indeed, on the standard A-Z, the streets are shown much bigger than they really are; and even on conventionally printed Ordnance Survey maps, the size of major roads is exaggerated. Fair enough, you may say, because you are primarily interested in routes. But it's not Truth or Reality. And what if you want some quite different information, such as the number and size of local parks, which are made smaller on the A-Z to make space for roads? It would be interesting to know how many perfectly pleasant, relatively cheap neighbourhoods are ignored by house-hunters who use the wrong sort of map when choosing an area to live.

It is subjectivity - also known as purpose - not mathematical accuracy, that necessarily lies at the heart of cartography. When you look at a map, first find out its intended purpose and then look at the cartographer's bias. This is often difficult to detect, because we generally share the map-maker's scale of values - we agree on what is important. But when a map is created by a nonconformist, the subjectivity of the accepted view often becomes apparent. Compare the crusading world map produced for Unesco with a conventional Mercator projection world map. The first utilises the Peters projection, which shows the true proportions of the land masses, in the process demonstrating the actual size of the countries in the developing world, but distorts their shape. The other exaggerates the sizes of Europe and North America, but shows the true shapes of the land masses. Neither projection is true, given the impossibility of truthfully depicting the total reality of the ball that is the earth on a flat piece of paper. The map-makers chose the projection that most effectively meets their purpose - or appears to "prove" their argument.

Subjectivity also enables old maps to provide unique insights into the mentalities of ages past. Take the example of one of the best-known early images of London, produced by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg in Frankfurt in 1572. It presents an attractive image, combining a measured ground plan with views of the principal buildings. For these reasons, it has frequently been reproduced in coffee-table books. Yet take a look at the image as a whole. It gives no hint of the reality of the grotesque overcrowding and sickness that, we know from other sources, prevailed in Tudor London. Why are none of the halls of the livery companies named, while several aristocratic town houses are? Why is the royal barge shown at the mathematical centre of the map on a Thames that is grossly inflated in size? Above all, why do the text panels talk about London's dependence on trade for its wealth and on the virtues of the Hanseatic League, a loose but powerful confederation of northern German trading cities, whose London headquarters, the Steelyard, is named in small capitals? The map is, in fact, a piece of Hanseatic propaganda. It is intended to depict a city made prosperous by a seaborne trade fostered by the merchants of the Hansa, a city ruled by queen and ministers rather than by English merchants through the livery companies.

The original map was probably created by the merchants of the Steelyard at a time when they were struggling to restore the extensive privileges of which they had recently been stripped, largely because of the opposition of the English merchants. It is only in this context that its veracity can properly be judged. There are alternative and very different-looking maps of the same city that could have been drawn at the same time, such as plans of the overcrowded dwellings created by Ralph Treswell for landlords keen to maximise their income from rents.

Set against this variety of images, objective, photographic truth, even if attainable, seems dull - and far from useful.

The BBC Radio 4 series The Secrets of Maps is broadcast from 9.30am to 9.45am on Tuesdays until 20 February

Peter Barber is the deputy map librarian at the British Library

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Exclusive: how Labour could lose

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.