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Aladdin/Arabian Nights

Over-precious storytelling is trumped by a proper panto

New Wimbledon Theatre, London SW19
Arabian Nights
RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon

The cast of this year's Wimbledon panto sounded too good to be true and - guess what? - it was. Pamela Anderson and Paul O'Grady may be both appearing in Aladdin, but only in a kind of relay as Genie of the Lamp. On press night Ruby Wax took the part, and between Pammy and Paul it will be Anita Dobson.

The London Evening Standard, God preserve, suggested that Pam had cut her run down to a minimum and had yet to arrive in England - let alone to a rehearsal. But never mind that. Anderson just handed herself on a plate as a target for Ruby Wax, who played the part as an American diva with no interest in British pantomimic tradition (this part of the characterisation should prove no stretch for CJ from, remind me, was it Baywatch or The West Wing?).

After her flying entrance, Wax had to be unstrapped from her safety harness by a stage hand. Later she was dragged on stage while booking her restaurant reservation. And what, she demanded, was it with Brian Blessed's voice? She couldn't understand a word; it was just boom, boom, boom.

Blessed, as Abanazar, started a little problematically by ticking off a member of the audience for their using their phone or camera (or possibly camera-phone). "I'll turn you into a prawn cocktail, and that's just for starters," he said; or that might have been a line from Paul Thornley's excellent Wishee Washee (catchphrase "It's sadder than that" - and he wasn't even talking about his jokes) or Sam Bradshaw's acrobatic PC Pong. It was dark. I couldn't make notes. It could have been any of them.

In any case, the company was soon coming together like a well-oiled double entendre, with Jonathan D Ellis making up in grandeur and costumes what he lacked in years and girth as Widow Twankey, and the lithe Djalenga Scott quite exceptional as a Brazilian-accented Slave of the Ring, proving that beauty and high kicks need not stop you being very funny.

Starring as ever in his own one-man play, Blessed even took it upon himself to recite "Kubla Khan". "Shakespearean Actor," he concluded. Part of the fun of panto is to see the industry's more serious thesps brought low, and Blessed strode around a stage littered with references to Superdrug, New Look, TomTom and the local shopping centre. I was particularly pleased to see Jedward rewarded with a pastiche - if you can pastiche a pastiche - of their "Ghostbusters" routine from The X Factor.

Directed by Ian Talbot, who selflessly underplays the part of Ian Talbot, this is a great panto, lacking only in sufficient topical references to bankers. But with tickets costing up to £29, perhaps the company can't risk offending its potential audience.

“Aladdin" is one of the tales added to The Thousand and One Nights by the French scholar Antoine Galland in the early 1700s, possibly
to get the numbers up. It does not make it into Dominic Cooke's revival of his 1998 stage adaptation, Arabian Nights. Flowering from an almost Shakespearean bare stage, this is a magical evening of mime, puppetry and ensemble storytelling that respects the true traditions of the tales, in the interests of authenticity - even, for example, renaming Sinbad "Es-Sindibad". I, of course, hated it.

It is one of those evenings that work only because the company, which is determined to be enchanting, is playing to an audience determined to be enchanted. You get five tales for your money and the character of Shahrazad as a framing device. Some certainly work better than others. I quite enjoyed the story of the wife who wouldn't eat, for example, until Adura Onashile's heavily workshopped number as a dog. The story of how Abu Hassan broke wind never completely fails, but it got a bigger laugh onstage from Silas Carson's pectorally impressive King than it did from the children in the stalls.

The acting throughout was so precious and wide-eyed that the stories were as patronised as the audience. Only once did anyone speak like a real person. And that was Daniel Cerqueira as the whingeing Head Chef. For a play with so many corpses being flung around and eaten, Arabian Nights was a bloodless affair, although probably an edifying one, which is not a compliment you could throw in the direction of Wimbledon.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

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.