The Genius of British Art

Mr Jacobson is a seductive and idiosyncratic art critic.

When Howard Jacobson, who comes from Manchester, announced in the third film in Channel 4's (mostly) excellent series The Genius of British Art (17 October, 7pm) that he takes "any slur on the provincial personally", I wanted to kiss him. Honestly. I wanted to scoop him up and stroke his lustrous hair and tickle his bristly chin. Like him, I used to be embarrassed by my provincialism. I was always straining to lengthen my vowels. But now, also like him, I don't give a toss. And thus I can say without any nervousness at all that I agree with him entirely when he argues, as he did on screen, that the contents of Tate Modern are pretty flaccid compared to, say, those of the Lady Lever Art Gallery on the Wirral. Give me Lawrence Alma-Tadema over a load of porcelain sunflower seeds any day of the week.

Jacobson's subject in this film was "flesh", which is to say: tits, bums and phallic symbols. Oh yes, and fairies, too, which the Victorians liked to use to suggest desire and all the terrors and mysteries that accompany it (I loved the way Jacobson said the word "fairy"; he imbued it with a kind of boyish tastiness, as if describing a delicious fish supper or a Curly Wurly). His contention was that it is wrong to think that the British don't do sex, and especially wrong to think of the Victorians only as prigs and prudes, as "furtive hypocrites".

Exhibit A? Two paintings, one by Monet, the other by Sickert, both of a naked woman. In the Monet, said Jacobson, the woman looked like
a piece of fruit. But in the Sickert, there was the suggestion of a backstory: of thought, doubt and motivation. Fruit versus thoughtfulness? Round one to the British. "We don't just do the fires of today," said Jacobson. "We think about how we'll feel tomorrow."

There followed a brief tour of our finer regional art galleries. At the Lady Lever, Jacobson stood in front of The Tepidarium (1881) by Alma-Tadema and pointed out a few of its quirks. The naked woman that is its subject holds in one hand a back scratcher and in the other an ostrich feather; she languishes on a particularly hairy animal skin and at her feet stands an azalea bush.

Jacobson did not suggest aloud that the woman had possibly been masturbating, but he did say the word "bush" quite forcefully, which made me smile. Later, gazing at a sculpture made of tights and an old chair by the Britart star Sarah Lucas, he pulled the same trick with the word "gusset", with the result that, even as he professed his admiration for Lucas's work, you felt his disdain and began to share it.

I found myself seduced, which was appropriate, in the circumstances. Jacobson is one of those rare men who can swoon openly about art - be it painting or literature - without sounding remotely poncey. This is because he feels it. He is a writer, not a presenter; nothing he says has the ersatz tang of performance.

However, I'm afraid I'm going to have to tick him off all the same, though I accept that the bliss of his Booker Prize win means he is unlikely to give two hoots about anything I say just now. About ten minutes before the end, Jacobson visited the intellectual cul-de-sac that is known as "Blame the Feminists". All men are misogynists now, he said, whether they look or don't look. He then blamed the massed ranks of overly sensitive and censorial wimmin for the neglect of William Etty, the York-born artist, whose nudes are mostly in storage these days. Apparently, we just can't take him.

This is pure rot. Most Victorian art remains madly unfashionable - this is one reason why I love it so - and Etty is a victim of this, not sexual politics. If Jacobson's argument, that we women disdain what we muddle-headedly perceive as Etty's misogyny, were true, the work of Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud, even Jenny Saville, would be also in storage. Oh, well. I will not snark on. In the context of Jacobson's film and of his victory in the Booker (at last!) it is a small thing. I don't want to be a killjoy. I just thought I'd point it out.

“The Genius of British Art" continues on Sunday evenings until 7 November

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!

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.