Oh dear. And it was all going so well. When I first meet Kevin Spacey, the double Oscar-winner is five years into his 10-year term as artistic director of the Old Vic. He has just won an Evening Standard Special Award for turning the venerable, failing playhouse into an artistic powerhouse. "This is for the group of people here,” he says, tapping the statuette on the head, "who are the reason we are doing as well as we are, who have been unflinching in support of what they believe we can achieve, often in the face of criticism. All I am is a magnet for bringing in artists.”
This may be mock-modest but Spacey has indeed brought extraordinary talent back to the Waterloo venue, from Trevor Nunn to Jeff Goldblum, Alan Ayckbourn to Diana Rigg. He has pulled in admiring audiences for their shows and for his own sublime performances in the Philadelphia Story, Moon for the Misbegotten and Richard II. When we talk, he is poised to kick off possibly his most intriguing season yet. It features Andrea Corr's stage debut in Dancing at Lughnasa, and the return of wünderkind Sam Mendes with The Bridge Project, two classic plays with a starry transatlantic ensemble.
But first up is Spacey's own staging of a new American drama, Complicit, starring Richard Dreyfuss as a journalist accused of abetting terrorism. It is, he says, a timely and prescient examination of the erosion of civil liberties that "has all the elements of tragedy”.
Fast-forward 10 days. The opening night of Complicit has been put back by almost two weeks. It will therefore run for less than a month once the reviews are out. There are rumours that Dreyfuss can't remember his lines and is relying on prompts from a visible earpiec...
The possibility of a flop is uncomfortably reminiscent of Spacey's first two seasons, which he began with the widely disliked new plays Cloaca and National Anthems, and Robert Altman's rackety and under-rehearsed staging of Arthur Miller's Resurrection Blues. But Spacey himself remains bullish, if not as bouncy as before.
He refuses to comment on the earpiece story but explains his reason for extending the preview period. "Plays don't fully develop until they are performed in front of an audience, night after night,” he says. "That's the purpose of preview performances.
"During the course of the first week of previews we made a number of changes to the production — from staging, to technical improvements and some new dialogue. This is a challenging work and we felt strongly about wanting to get the production at its best before the critics came in. It is the only fair way to treat a playwright, particularly when you're dealing with a new work.”
This is the first play Spacey has directed himself at the Old Vic since Cloaca. He clearly feels a great deal of loyalty to Complicit's writer, Joe Sutton, having appeared in another of his political plays, As It Is In Heaven, in 1987, early in his stage career. He is also loyal to Dreyfuss. "Richard is one of the most remarkable actors we have ever produced,” he says, "and since I gather he generally hates everything he's sent, to get him for this is extraordinary. I have adored his work for years.
"I also know he dedicates a lot of time to getting the teaching of civics reintroduced in American public schools, so he is passionate about America and the subjects this play touches on. If he sees in the play what I see in it, I can't think of a more appropriate actor to bring it to life.”
Given that Dreyfuss was ignominiously fired from the London premiere of The Producers musical back in 2004, I wonder if Spacey had even a twinge of doubt about hiring him. "Look,” he replies vehemently, "Richard is the most honest man about that. He told them he couldn't sing and dance, and they said: So what, come and do it.' Then three days in they said: Hey, you can't sing and dance.' As far as I'm concerned, it's their fault, not his.”
Fair enough. I ask Spacey if he feels his recent successes at the Vic earned him the right to gamble on a new play again. "I always had the right,” he snaps back. He is similarly dismissive of the suggestion that London audiences might not engage with a play about American political and legal shenanigans, pointing out the global interest in Obama's ascension. (A lifelong Democrat, he says of Obama: "I don't envy what he's been given on all sorts of levels but it's going to be awfully nice to have a President who thinks before he speaks, and considers before he acts.”) Besides, three of Spacey's British friends have been stopped and searched under terror legislation in London recently.
Spacey has kept the in-the-round configuration of the Old Vic introduced for Matthew Warchus's sell-out production of Alan Ayckbourn's Norman Conquests trilogy, so that audience members can see each other, and wonder how they'd deal with the issues of conscience facing Dreyfuss's character. "The reason the play is called Complicit is because we all are.”
We move on, with relief on both sides, to less contentious ground. Next in his season is a revival of Dancing at Lughnasa, Brian Friel's beautiful, lyrical Irish memory play. The largely female story, a long-running money-spinner on its last appearance in the West End, will now be staged in the round and "rediscovered” by director Anna Mackmin, with the luminous Andrea Corr in a leading role. But it is The Bridge Project, for which the Old Vic will be restored to its "epic, thousand-seat grandeur”, that is Spacey's real coup.
Sam Mendes, fresh from the success of his latest film Revolutionary Road and absent from London for the past six years, will direct The Cherry Orchard and The Winter's Tale with a cast including Ethan Hawke, Sinead Cusack and Simon Russell Beale. In a major step forward in relations between British and American Equity, the shows will play at the Old Vic and the Brooklyn Academy of Music before touring internationally. Mendes has signed on for three years of Bridge productions, and in the third year Spacey will lead the company. The enterprise renews a partnership begun in 1999 with Mendes's first film, American Beauty, for which Spacey won the Best Actor Oscar.
"Look, it's such a great idea for New York to get an idea of what's going on in London and vice-versa,” Spacey beams. "The Old Vic used to tour internationally — those seasons where they went to Australia and found Peter Finch. And it's so incredible that Sam has committed to six productions over three years. I've been wooing him since 1999, when I'd first decided to start the company here, but he was like, I'm just leaving the Donmar, give me time!'”.
The way Spacey tells it, they niggled away for years about what form a future collaboration between them, the American film star running a theatre in London, and the British theatre director in New York, should take. "Sam kept saying, We're missing something here ...'.” He seems to suggest there's a synergy there, both he and Mendes turning their backs, at least partially, on film, to return to their first love, theatr...
.... "Well, theatre by its ritual and repetition creates families,” he concedes. "Film is an entirely different beast. And one of the things I responded to most about Sam on American Beauty was that he brought the best of theatre technique into film.”
Spacey won't be drawn on what plays he may act in for Mendes, apart from saying that "it's been gratifying to find out that what Sam and I both feel comes under the heading of classic' work is pretty broad”. The funding for all three seasons of the Bridge, from Bank of America and American Airlines, is in place. You must be pleased, I say, as sponsorship is surely drying up. This prompts another outburst.
Come on!” he shouts. "People say [whiny voice] Ew, it's gonna be so hard to raise money for the arts or charity in a recession.' I say this. SHUT! UP! You are causing it to happen rather than fighting against it. Culture is good for business. I don't want to see another regeneration plan that doesn't have a cultural centre at its heart — and if I do, it's because those bozos are missing the point. Because a theatre, an arts centre, a jazz club, a comedy store, brings people together. People need a shared experience, they need to be entertained, especially in a tough time. Arts and culture are a necessary part of our lives. They are not a luxury item.”
I don't think any of us can doubt Kevin Spacey's commitment to the Old Vic in particular, and London theatre in general, after that. But he turns 50 this year and claims that he'll almost certainly step down at the end of his planned 10-year stint in Waterloo. In the next five years, and whether Complicit turns out to be hit or flop, he wants to consolidate his artistic achievement. There are also plans to secure the building's famously rotten Victorian fabric and some long-term funding ("I'm going for endowments, baby!”).
He's still acting in movies — 21 and Recount in 2008, with Shrink and Men Who Stare at Goats due this year — and occasionally producing them through his LA company, Trigger Street. But since he claims that "movies are my part-time job, my full-time job is here”, I wonder what he'll do when he steps down at Waterloo. "A lot of the work I've done here and to some degree my whole life has been about giving a foundation and support to emerging artists, and I think that will continue in some form,” he says. This is an echo of his early mentor Jack Lemmon, who told him that anyone who hit lucky in showbusiness had a duty to "send the elevator back down”.
Will this future endeavour be in London, which he now sees as his home? Will he be bringing new life to other areas of the capital? Will he, as I've read somewhere, be applying for British citizenship?
I don't know where that [rumour] got started,” he smiles. "I think you can apply for it after you've lived in a country 10 years. Whether I will or not depends entirely on taxes.”
Complicit is previewing now at the Old Vic (0870 060 6628, www.oldvictheatre.com) and runs until 21 February.
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I think Kevin Spacey is an extraordinary actor and even though he has been embraced by London still gets slammed by the UK critics because he is "American", they look a for any chance for him to fail....shame on you! I think what Kevin is doing in introducing theater to the youth of London and New York is his legacy.
I am traveling to London in 10 days and plan to see "Complicit", I can't wait!
Damn the torpedoes Kevin and full speed ahead.
- Barbara Lovejoy, Tennessee, USA
Bravo again to Kevin Spacey, even though I for one did not love the Old Vic in the Round, and long for its return to its cramped and joyous Victorian velour, where I discovered so much theatre that still remains vivid after half a century. I don't know if I will be able to or even wish to see all he plans to produce, but I will certainly cheer on the attempts.