The wrong track

Theatre - Michael Portillo takes an uncomfortable return trip to his days as transport minister

Before the curtain went up on David Hare's play about Britain's railways, a chatty lady in the next seat said to me, more playfully than aggressively: "You're brave coming here. Your government butchered the railways." I was starting to tell her that the years before privatisation were no golden age when the dimming lights ended our exchange. I'd wanted to explain that as minister for transport, when the railways were publicly owned, I had seen them bring out the bodies from crashes at Clapham, Purley and Milngavie (all within four months), and that I had sacked the chiefs of London Transport and London Underground (both nationalised industries) because of the management neglect that preceded the King's Cross fire.

But as a minister I saw other things, too. Hare's play reveals uncomfortable truths. He shows how John Major adopted a privatisation plan that few even in government believed could work. As one of the play's characters says, it's analogous to a restaurant where the cooks, waiters and washers-up have different employers.

If the early scenes about the Tory years were the most difficult for me personally, they left me unprepared for Hare's harrowing portrayal of how the crashes at Southall, Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar affected the survivors and the bereaved. Their verbatim remarks - taken from conversations with Hare or from witness statements at the Cullen inquiry - form the basis of the play's script. Richard Norton-Taylor's Justifying War (which draws solely on the transcripts of the Hutton inquiry) made it clear that when audiences know they are hearing the truth, they hang on every word. This is also the case with The Permanent Way. Non-fictionalised accounts of horrific accidents, bereavement and the outrages of officialdom tend to move us deeply.

This is a fine piece of theatre well performed by actors from the Out of Joint company. As the play moved from initial humour to sustained anguish, I don't suppose mine was the only dry throat in the theatre, or that only former Tory ministers were having difficulty swallowing.

In this necessarily static play, we are nudged from one disaster to the next by the shuffling sound of a railway depar-ture board projected behind the actors. It shows us the calling points of each train that did not reach its destination, emphasising that every disaster begins in a routine way. Then, horrifyingly, the back projection places the audience on the track at Hatfield, the overhead wires extending from the screen across the auditorium. The GNER locomotive hurtles towards us, tipping on to its side, demolishing the trackside gantries, with carriages behind it bouncing about like skittles, the theatre filled with the roar of tearing metal. It's a shocking moment and a remarkable example of modern stagecraft.

The Permanent Way dwells on the chasm that opened up after Ladbroke Grove between the survivors and the bereaved, with the latter proving more militant, even vengeful. After the Clap-ham disaster, a mild-mannered lady who'd lost her brother in the crash spoke to me several times. A year later she shocked me by saying how much she yearned for justice for the murder of her brother. The immediate cause of his death was the failure of a signalling engineer to reconnect a wire correctly at the end of his shift. I believe that if your job doesn't put you at risk of killing people, should you make a mistake, be very thankful and do not rush to judge others. In Hare's play, the Rector of Hatfield says: "Obsession with blame debases us." I say: "Amen."

It is interesting, then, that the former chief executive of Railtrack Gerald Corbett, a man who was hissed at during public inquiries, emerges quite well. I don't think that's just my wishful thinking (he's been a friend since Cambridge). Events take their toll on him and he ends up philosophically reflecting on how his personality, even his spirit, has developed: "It's been hugely positive in a human sense."

Nor do the Tories come out worse than Labour (or might that also be a failure of objectivity?). The Conservatives are chastised for being ideological, obsessed with private ownership and indifferent. Since then, four major disasters have occurred and, despite several inquiries, seemingly nothing has been learnt. Except that, after the most recent catastrophe at Potters Bar, there has been no inquiry, no admission of responsibility and no compensation. Nina, an elderly lady injured and widowed in that crash (based on the novelist Nina Bawden, who lost her husband in the disaster), laments: "I never believed in corruption before . . . It's in everyone's interests to do nothing: the government, Railtrack, Jarvis." A serving RAF officer who survived the crash and knelt over Nina's unconscious body in the wreckage comments: "They'd love it if she died."

In the stunned silence that followed the play, the woman next to me pointedly didn't restart our conversation. It was just as well. I really wouldn't have known what to say to her.

The Permanent Way is booking at the Cottesloe, National Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) until 30 March

This article first appeared in the 09 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Those WMDs - The blame game

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.