A Continental revenge; 15-second theatre hell; Meyer has the last cough; cannibal publishers

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The Independent Online
After what seems like years of listening to complaints about how much we're being dictated to by the frightful Continentals - those shouty advertisements ("BRUSSELS SPOUTS") from Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party; those insistent rumours that Chancellor Kohl is going to specify which television channels we can watch - it's nice to see things going the other way for once.

You know, I'm sure, that Sir Norman Foster, the distinguished architect, is in charge of restoring the Reichstag, German's pre-war parliament building. The Foster partnership won a design competition in 1993, for the right to refurbish the 1894 pile which was famously burned down by a mad Dutchman on the instructions of Hermann Goering in 1933, and stormed by the Russians in 1945. It is, in other words, reeking with significance, as the national assembly building of the old and the newly unified Germany.

Foster's men are about to present their final designs to "the client", the name by which they archly refer to the German government, and it will be quite an education to watch the various factions of German political life arguing the merits of the seating plans of the new chamber. There is, however, a sticking-point. It's the eagle, which goes back to early medieval times as the symbol of Teutonic might. Recently, Sir Norman happened to mention that he didn't much care for the design of the eagle that has perched in the parliamentary debating chamber in Bonn since the Sixties, designed by one Gunter Behnisch. He thought it looked a bit fat and needed to be "slenderer", more in keeping with the 21st century than the 19th. A mild enough criticism, you'd think - but it's provoked a diplomatic and press furore. Hardly surprising, really. The idea of some arty Brit poncing about in Germany's House of Commons is bad enough; to start dickering around with the symbol of German imperial ambitions - why, it's like that nice M Santer wondering about rethinking the Union Jack.

These are tough times for actors and audiences alike. Theatre-goers have long dreaded the moment when some hyperactive member of the cast will jump on to your seat, invite you on to the stage, laughingly encourage you to join them in some impromptu duet, attempt to perform sex with you, wiggle themselves erotically at you, call you names, humiliate and scorn you, and expect you to take it all in good heart. I've lost track of the times I've been pulled up on stage in my life, from Hair and Godspell and Insulting the Audience to the Dame Edna concerts of the mid-Eighties. I've spent countless evenings at the Edinburgh Fringe having strangers in Druidic garb clutching my ankles and nibbling my shoes. So it was with a certain sneaking regard that I read about Ms Evelyn Amato, the New York theatre-goer who objected to having one of the cats in Cats on Broadway try to interest her in a brief acting masterclass. She's claiming damages for "assault, battery, invasion of privacy, violation of civil rights, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment", which seems a bit steep for 15 seconds of looming, and isn't the plaintiff's surname Latin for "She who is to be loved"?[Er, no, actually - Ed].

But even as one tut-tuts about the cheek of intrusive thespians, one's eye falls on the case of Mr Michael Meyer - and one's sympathy goes out to poor actors, faced with the modern audience.

Mr Meyer is a distinguished translator and biographer of Ibsen. He was spotted at the first night of Pinter's The Homecoming doing a lot of explosive, virtuoso coughing in the front row; Michael Coveney, the Observer's drama critic, wrote about it in his paper. Back came a spectacular riposte from Mr Meyer last Sunday, one of the finest pieces of whining self-justification I've ever seen. "As most people who know me will confirm," he wrote, "I have suffered since childhood from a nervous cough as seemingly uncontrollable as a nervous tic. I was mocked for it at school, and it is disconcerting to be publicly ridiculed for it in old age ..."

So Mr Meyer lives to cough another day, to the irritation of Harold Pinter, critics, audiences and actors alike. And when you see him at the next opening night shaking his fist and yelling at the cast, I'm sure he'll explain that it's just an important exercise regimen he has to follow for the relief of a slipped disc ...

Most stories from the publishing world are about as exciting as the trade news from the milled-steel industry, but this week sees the biggest shake-up for the book business in many years. Two weeks ago, Helen Fraser, MD of the Reed Group of publishers, moved to the top job at the Penguin Group and set about rearranging the conglomerate's personnel. "I'm building a mountain," she is currently saying to ashen-faced top executives, "but I'm not quite sure where you are on it." They soon will be. Monday is the day on which hordes of Penguinites are expected to find themselves stranded on the ice-floe of redundancy.

Shrewdly anticipating this outcome, Clare Alexander, the regal boss of Viking (the classy-but-popular end of the Penguin Group), is jumping ship and going to take over the throne at Macmillan recently vacated by the romantically inclined Peter Straus. Still with me? Now the Reed Group, which has been looking for a new owner for more than a year, has been bought by Random House, the conglomerate which owns Cape, Chatto, Hutchinson and Vintage. The Reed accountants were looking for a figure not a mile off pounds 100m, but will be lucky to have got pounds 20m for their trade titles (children's books and illustrated books from Mitchell Beazley and Conran Octopus weren't part of the deal).

What does it all mean? It means that, not only are the three great mega- corporations of British publishing swapping staff like Italian football teams, they're also eating each other up. Conglomerates are supposed to snap up little herbivorous independents, not take bites out of each other. It's like watching a brontosaurus slowly, and pointlessly, ingesting a triceratops.

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