The 50 people who matter today: 31-40

31-40 on our diverse list of individuals, couples and families changing the world, for good and ill.

31.Sonia Gandhi

The kingmaker

Italian-born and a Catholic, Sonia Gandhi is the unexpected matriarch of India's ruling dynasty. In the 18 years since the assassination of her husband, the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, she has become a formidable force in the world's biggest democracy. Leading the Congress Party to victory in 2004, she declined the prime ministership, instead nominating the economist Manmohan Singh for it, yet she is widely accepted to be the real power behind the throne - particularly given that in 2007 she also selected the president, Pratibha Patil. Gandhi's influence looks sure to continue into the next generation, as both of her children, Rahul and Priyanka, have been manoeuvred into public life.

32: David MacKay

Power ranger

The Cambridge physicist David J C MacKay used £10,000 of his own money to publish Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air, which, thanks largely to a word-of-mouth campaign that had it circulating like ecological samizdat, very quickly entered Amazon's top 60 bestsellers. (It is also available as a free download from MacKay's website.)

Much of MacKay's research has been in the field of information theory, neural networks and software development. Among the many achievements that earned him a professorship in 2003 and election to the Royal Society this year is Dasher, a data-entry interface that enables disabled people to use computers. But Sustainable Energy is the reason MacKay really matters, and the reason he has just been appointed chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

For too long, he argues, the climate change debate has been disastrously polarised: between those who think the point of "peak oil" is imminent and those who insist we are not heading for an energy crisis any time soon, and between proponents of renewable energy and supporters of nuclear power. He cuts through all the noisy polemicising by settling on a simple unit of measurement that allows us to calculate a country's power consumption. If we know how much power is consumed by land area, then, because most kinds of renewable energy are harvested on land, we will be able to "quantify the potential power production from renewables".

MacKay does the maths and makes an empirically watertight case for the use of energy crops, windfarms and solar power. He calculates that if Britain adopted a mixture of wind, solar and nuclear power, 10 per cent of the country would have to be covered by wind turbines; the area occupied by solar power stations would be five times the size of London; and the 50 nuclear power stations needed would occupy some 50km². "The effort required for a plan like that is very large," he says. "But [it is] imaginable." The argument over energy will never be the same again.
Jonathan Derbyshire

33. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Political trailblazer

If one good thing emerged from the civil war in Liberia, it was the leadership of Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. When she took office in January 2006, she became the world's first black female head of state. In her three years as president, she has led the charge against corruption in her country and worked tirelessly to attract investment to Africa, particularly by building relations with the US. In 2007 George W Bush awarded her the Medal of Freedom, the highest US civilian honour. In return, two years later, Johnson-Sirleaf made the US television host Jon Stewart a chief.

34.Simon Cowell

The X man

He could be on the list for The X Factor alone. The queues across Britain, the thousands lusting for stardom, are an annual fixture. Millions tune in every week to watch the judges weed out the mad or the painful of voice. All the while, Cowell pockets a fortune by signing the winners to his label, Syco. His influence extends beyond the music industry, however: the X Factor and Britain's Got Talent TV formats are now copied around the world. He might not be loved (he came in at number 33 on Channel 4's list of the all-time 100 Worst Britons), but he shapes much of the world's entertainment.

35. Oprah Winfrey

Chatelaine of chat

Some - Vanity Fair, Time, CNN - have said that Oprah is one of the most influential women in the world. Oprah isn't just a name, a TV show, or a brand - it's a culture with millions of followers. Her approval can turn a book into a bestseller, or even elect a president (one academic study suggested that she delivered roughly a million votes for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, essentially winning him the nomination). And now, there is talk of her entering the Senate. But Oprah also represents the ultimate American story: the self-made woman from the humblest of beginnings who became, at one point, the world's only black billionaire. Now she's giving back - her extensive philanthropy includes setting up a girls' school in South Africa.

36. Muhammad Yunus

Loan star

As a young economist in Bangladesh, Muhammad Yunus became interested in microcredit, the idea that small loans could make a disproportionate difference to the lives of those too poor for banks to lend to. In 1976, he raised the funds to set up the Grameen Bank on these principles, advancing nearly all its credit to women, whom he thought were more likely to use the funds responsibly. He was proved right. The concept was so successful in helping lift customers out of poverty that it has been copied around the world, and Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006.

37.Carolyn Porco

Star gazer

Carolyn Porco, a Nasa adviser with an asteroid named in her honour, holds the future of space travel in her hands. Renowned for her work in exploration and imaging of the outer solar system, she was part of a mission to Saturn's moons that, in her own words, "possibly stumbled upon the holy grail of modern-day planetary exploration" by finding an environment in which there could be living organisms. Porco bridges the gap between scientific discovery and popular culture, acting as consultant for the 2009 Star Trek film. There is even an online petition to get her a cameo appearance in the sequel. How many scientists can say that?

38.Yukio Hatoyama

Prime mover
Japan's new prime minister is spearheading the most progressive political shift in his country's postwar history, which includes plans for a 25 per cent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020, not to mention high-profile talk of a modern international "fraternity" (cemented, perhaps, by an Asian single currency), both of which would have been unthinkable in Japan just two months ago. Unlike Barack Obama, Hatoyama has a huge parliamentary majority to support his ideas.

39. Rex Tillerson

Oil swell

As chief executive of ExxonMobil, the largest non-state energy company on the planet, Rex Tillerson is the quintessential villain of the
environmental camp. Since taking over the company in 2006, he has abandoned his pre­decessors' hardline approach, openly acknowledging the possibility of global warming - this year, he sanctioned a $600m investment in ­algae fuel research - but even this is a drop in the ocean of Exxon's oil reserves. He stands firm on saying that energy demand will increase in the next 20 years, and that Exxon will supply the oil and gas to satisfy that need.

40. Usain Bolt

Mr Lightning

Usain Bolt is the fastest man on earth. His tauntingly casual stride across the finishing line has become one of the resonant images of the 21st century: his yellow Jamaica vest alone at the front of the pack. He is now recognised as the most extraordinary athlete in the world, ever. His success, combined with his humour and popularity, has reignited the world of athletics and the Olympic Games, tainted in recent years by drug scandals. Bolt's performance signals the end of US dominance in track and field sports. But most of all, he has shown the peak of physical ability - a human being at the limit of his bodily powers.

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter

Romola Garai in The Writer.
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The Writer at the Almeida: a drama which tries to have its meaning-cake and eat it

This isn’t a boring, safe three-star play: you’re either Team Five or Team One.

God, the Almeida’s new production knows how to push my buttons. “Don’t you know how hard it is to write a play?” one character shouts at another, two-thirds of the way through. Every fibre of my being wanted to scream back: “Try working down a mine!”

The Writer is an endlessly tricksy piece, trying to have its meaning-cake and eat it, showing you scenes and then immediately undercutting them with meta-narrative. What is it about? Good question. Impossible question. It begins with a young black woman (Lara Rossi) who has left her bag behind in the theatre. On her way out, she is cross-questioned by an older, effortlessly middle-class white man (Samuel West) about the play she’s just seen.

Her criticisms of the state of modern theatre are brutal: women are there to be judged on their looks, while we wait to hear what men will say and do. Girls in hotpants present themselves like animals on heat; actresses are encouraged to get naked on the thinnest of pretexts, when it’s very hard to be both topless and truly empowered. Even worse, the director “added a rape” because that’s seen as being both titillating and “edgy”.

I agreed with all this checklist of chauvinism, and I even recognised the lazy, patronising indulgence of the powerful man trotting out the usual defences in response. Surely, he says, you don’t want to ban people being sexy? The woman points out that she was talking about rape, not sex. Also, doesn’t he recognise her? She knows he directed the play she just watched. He once told her that her anger was impressive six years ago, when she was a student, and that she could have a career in the theatre. (Yes, apparently anger is a proxy for creative ability, which is why the YouTube comments section swept the board at the Oliviers.) Then he tried to kiss her. She didn’t want to accept a job on such compromised terms.

And – scene. Ho ho ho, what we’ve just been watching was, of course, a workshop of a new play. Perched on a folding chair in the middle of the stage, as if taking part in a post-show talk, The Writer (Romola Garai) is chided by another older white man (Michael Gould) that it’s too angry, too lacking in nuance. The problem is: while he is patronising, he is also right. It might have been entirely correct in its sentiments, but as drama, it only had one gear. If I wanted to watch people identify genuine problems with thumping earnestness and zero self-awareness . . . well, there are plenty of left-wing op-ed columnists for that.

This self-referentiality persists throughout. We get a scene with The Writer and her boyfriend, where he wants her to take a film job and she is too principled to do it. They have bad sex on the sofa he has just bought for her. The first scene had mentioned the cheapness of bringing a real baby on stage (a clear dig at The Ferryman), so a real baby is brought on stage. The audience coos appreciatively, because it’s impossible to resist millennia of genetic programming, even when you want to look cool and self-aware.

Then Romola Garai’s character monologues about having a contraceptive coil fitted, which then slips into a story of her swimming through a lake to a lost world where she has lesbian sex outdoors and feels happy for the first time not to experience the male gaze. (I don’t remember there being an obvious segue between the coil and the alfresco cunnilingus.) This "tribal shit" is no way to end a play, says Michael Gould’s Director, who has turned up stage-right. It’s not as good as your angry first scene. Again: the annoying man has a point.

Then he tells the Writer he’s only giving her these notes because he thinks she’s brilliant, which feels like incredible chutzpah in a drama which will inevitably be read as thinly veiled autobiography. (There's another moment like this, when The Director tells her that you can't write a play where the protagonist is endlessly self-involved, and she shoots back: "Hamlet!" It's a great joke, but it does also set the bar quite high for how good the rest of the writing has to be.)

The final scene also features The Writer, this time with her girlfriend, in a smart apartment, eating curry. She’s just handed in a project and wants to relax by going to her girlfriend’s bar to do something “manual” and switch her brain off. Her girlfriend gives her the same unimpressed look at this Marie Antoinette dilettantism that half the audience do.

The couple then have bad sex on the sofa. The Writer, who is clearly now rich and successful, is just as inattentive to her partner’s enjoyment as her boyfriend was before – edging towards the point made by Naomi Alderman’s The Power that it’s not some innate property of the Y chromosome which creates sex inequality, and therefore gender roles could plausibly flip one day. Give a woman a financially dependent, less outwardly successful partner and she can play all the subtle, controlling tricks we associate with rich old men.

I watched The Writer twice; once in previews, and the leaner, tighter version displayed on press night. I enjoyed it more the second time, because - whatever else you can say about this play - it elicits a strong response. Knowing that it would provoke me, not always intentionally, cleared my mind to notice the pacy direction and mostly strong performances by the cast.

In a way, I’m grateful. The Writer has made me think as much as any play I’ve seen this year. It’s prompted a series of searching conversations with the handful of other people I know who’ve seen it. (It also prompted eye-rolls at all the male critics who clearly felt boxed into being nice about it on pain of being identified as Lead Patriarchal Oppressor of British Theatre.) This isn’t a boring, safe three-star play: you’re either Team Five or Team One.

That said, I do resent the meta-theatricality, usurping my right to my own responses by telling me constantly how to feel about what I’ve just seen. The text tries to pre-empt criticisms by voicing them within the play - this is boring, this is too angry, this doesn’t have an ending - when it could work harder to rebut them instead. Are we meant to see The Writer’s complaints about the difficulty of creative work as heartfelt sentiments, expressed with refreshing candour? Most writers I know, male and female, feel similarly, self-indulgently wronged by a world where reality TV is more popular than whatever they’ve slaved over for months. They are just clever enough not to say these things in public, where you might end up talking to, say, an intensive care nurse. Yes, there are flicks of knowingness here and there, but how much ironic distance is there between The Writer’s view of herself and the text’s, in the end? (The play's author, Ella Hickson, has spoken of her dismay at hearing the audience laugh when the female character says at the start that she wants to "dismantle capitalism and overturn the patriarchy", as if that's evidence that we have lost confidence in the transformative power of theatre. But there's a difference between a character expressing ambition and one with a messiah complex. Put it this way: I've written some fairly scorching thinkpieces, but I don't think any of them will stop Brexit. And the closest theatre has recently come to making me want to smash capitalism is when I realised how much I'd spent on tickets to see the binbag-themed Macbeth at the National.)

The Writer invites us to hold it to a terrifyingly high standard, by presenting itself as dangerous – a vivid j’accuse to hidebound theatrical traditions and smug audiences. It elides criticisms of West End celebrity-driven flam and the lazy, highbrow male gaze merchants of the subsidised sector. Its few identifiable targets are not always the most obviously deserving of scorn. (I didn't much like The Ferryman, but there was a proper play hidden under the Riverdance and haunted grandmas.) In the first scene, there’s a glancing reference to Laura Wade’s play Posh, directed by Lyndsey Turner at the Royal Court. It was watched and enjoyed, says the young woman, by exactly the same establishment it sought to satirise. The choice of example sits oddly in a jeremiad against patriarchy, because this was a rare new-ish play both written by a woman and directed by one. Is The Writer on the side of these women struggling to be heard in a male-dominated industry? It doesn’t feel like it. Perhaps Posh should have featured a scene where we were told that the Bullingdon Club is bad, as is capitalism generally, just to hammer the point home? But that’s absurd, because there is no way that play left the audience in any doubt that they were meant to despise the Oxbridge window-smashers. Perhaps some people are simply beyond the reach of theatrical guilt-trips.

The Almeida has had an astonishing run over the last year, with awards and West End transfers raining from the heavens. But the Writer – inevitably – suggests on stage that her play has only been programmed because it would have been too awkward for a white middle-class male artistic director to reject it, in the era of Time’s Up and #MeToo. I didn’t like the audience’s knowing, indulgent laughter in that moment. It felt like the joke was on us, and we didn’t know it.

The Writer runs at the Almeida, London, until 26 May

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter