Way out west

Art - Richard Cork finds agony and ecstasy in Turner's apocalyptic landscapes

We tend to think of J M W Turner as the quintessential Londoner, born in Covent Garden and brought up there by his barber father and a mentally disturbed mother who ended her days incarcerated in Bedlam. But the surprising truth is that Turner also had significant roots in Devon. His father was born in South Molton and two uncles lived in Barnstaple and Exeter. The West Country fully entered his blood during three fruitful trips he made there, and now the first exhibition ever devoted to the work inspired by those journeys has opened, appropriately enough, at Tate St Ives.

Turner's first tour of the West Country, in 1811, was sparked by a commission from William Bernard Cooke, an engraver and publisher who wanted him to provide images for an ambitious project called Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England, which was to be issued to subscribers in 16 instalments over a four-year period. The timing was perfect for such a venture: Devon and Cornwall were becoming widely admired for their luminosity, warm climate and intense colours. However, the arduous trip from London to Plymouth took almost 24 hours by bumpy stagecoach, and the poor condition of most roads in Devon made horse-drawn travel very slow. Cornwall was regarded as even more of a challenge, and few felt capable of making the effort.

Cooke didn't expect Turner to supply conventional images, dutifully depicting the topography of the area. By this stage in his precocious career, the 36-year-old artist was developing a revolutionary approach to landscape. Instead of relying on skilful fidelity, he wanted the dynamism of light and colour to transform his vision.

Turner's first visit was largely taken up with drawing on the wing, making swift summaries in pencil of the locations he passed. At the Tate's irresistible show, we can peer into the small sketchbooks he carried with him, and marvel at the speed and certitude of his response to scenes as varied as the monumental, multi-arched Barn-staple Bridge and the chaotically jostling rooftops of St Ives. Although they look skeletal, these on-the-spot studies armed him with enough pictorial information to compose watercolours and oil paintings of the same subjects after his return to London. Here, settled in the studio and relying on a formidably retentive memory, Turner succeeded in conveying the essences of the places he had scrutinised.

On his second tour, in 1813, the Plymouth artist A B Johns encouraged him to adopt a more elaborate procedure in front of his selected settings. An awed eyewitness recalled how "Mr Johns fitted up a small portable painting-box, containing some prepared paper for oil sketches as well as other necessary materials. When Turner halted at a scene and seemed inclined to sketch it, Johns produced the inviting box, and the great artist, finding everything ready to his hand, immediately began to work." It took less than half an hour to execute some of these proto-impressionist images, and their freshness is still exhilarating. An oil of Shaugh Bridge, near Plymouth, is alive with a darting, quicksilver alertness to the play of light on clouds, stone, foliage, rocks, water and even the tiny window ledge of a distant cottage in the woods.

Much of the time, though, Turner's West Country travels proved so various and unpredictable that he returned to draw-ing in his sketchbooks. On his third and final trip, in 1814, he wrote a wry letter to Johns telling him that "I got rid of my cold by catching a greater one, at Dartmouth being obliged to land from the boat half drownded with the spray as the gale compelled the boatmen to give up half way down the Dart from Totnes". Yet Turner would not have resented the sudden advent of a storm. He always relished tempestuous weather, the more apoca-lyptic the better. It stirred his appetite for heightened drama, and fed the dark strain of tragedy lurking within his capacious imagination.

This strain erupts in the most powerful of the watercolours he completed in his studio many years after the West Country expeditions. Take the ecstatic image of Plymouth painted in 1825, the foreground of which is animated by men busily mooring a boat and building a mighty timbered vessel nearby. Embroiled in their mari- time tasks, they seem oblivious of the revelation beyond. Half of Plymouth is charged with sun glare, bursting from the sky in a blaze of brightness, but dense rain clouds have massed over the rest of the city with ominous blue-black implacability. They are ready to inflict a hugely destructive onslaught, and their menace is alleviated only by a colossal rainbow curving through space in an arc of retina-dazzling brilliance. A watercolour study for this prodigious image, confined to a few sweeping washes of colour and concentrating on the fundamental opposition between light and dark, shows just how elemental Turner's art had become.

By 1834, when Turner addressed him-self to a large, deeply felt watercolour of Land's End, social observation had entirely dropped from his paintings. He was approaching 60 now, and his pre- liminary studies show a desolate locale exposed to the wrath of sea and sky. The stripped immediacy and freedom of these images is astounding: they could easily have been painted today. And they culminate in a baleful watercolour and gouache, scraped by the artist, which immerses us in storm-assailed waters off the edge of the coast. Although Long Ship's Lighthouse flares on the horizon, it has failed to save a ship foundering in the ocean. With the vessel breaking up before us, the fragments are already being swept towards the rocks. Even Land's End looks vulnerable, blurred to the point of invisibility as ferocious breakers explode against the cliffs with flurries of ghostly, terminal whiteness.

"Light Into Colour: Turner in the south-west" is at Tate St Ives, Porthmeor Beach (01736 796 226) until 7 May

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Iran: the next war

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.