Kevin Spacey’s first season in charge of the Old Vic starts tomorrow. Will he boost the fragile ecology of British theatre? Or will he leave us cold? Stuart Jeffries reports
Monday September 27, 2004
In the long queue for the ladies’ loos at the Old Vic Theatre before curtain up, there’s plenty of time for women to reflect on their motivation. Why have they come to see a preview of Kevin Spacey’s London directorial debut?
“I’m really keen to see what Spacey’s going to do with the Old Vic – it’s an exciting moment for the London theatre scene, I think,” says Shula Eriksson, a 35-year-old graphic designer. Even though the Oscar-winning actor is not in the cast? “Oh yes, but I’ve already got tickets for the shows he’s going to be starring in later in the season. I’m a major fan.”
But what about this play? “I’ve read it’s a comedy about male wankers in mid-life meltdown,” she says. “What’s not to like?” Her husband, Derek, who is even now buying the Pinot Grigios, is in for a tough evening.
“Don’t forget to turn your mobile off before we go in,” Derek counsels his wife a few minutes later. “Kevin frowns on that kind of thing.” In fact, Spacey does more than frown; he shames such thoughtless theatregoers publicly. When he was playing in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh in London a few years ago, a phone went off in the audience. “Tell them we’re busy,” Spacey told the phone’s owner. And, last week, he told Radio 4’s Front Row that theatregoers who refused to turn off their phones or eschew noisy sweet wrappers “shouldn’t come” – an outburst that prompted a flurry of supportive messages on BBC websites.
If this audience is representative of those who will be attending the Old Vic, Spacey’s clientele will not warrant his opprobrium. But the bigger question is whether Spacey will meet his audience’s expectations with his first season of plays as artistic director. To take it further, will a great American actor embarrass the London theatre world by beating it at its own game?
The Old Vic’s chairman – Sir Elton John, no less – thinks so. He has observed of Spacey: “What has truly inspired me is his passion for, and commitment to, this theatre. I know that, under his leadership, a permanent company at the theatre will bring a totally new dynamic so that the Old Vic remains one of the most important theatres in the world.”
This totally new dynamic will be scrutinised closely in the next few months. The season’s opening play by the Dutch dramatist Maria Goos is called Cloaca, meaning sewer, and is intended to be a bleakly comic contemporary drama about a quartet of men and their multiple mid-life crises. In an interview in the Old Vic magazine, Goos says: “Cloaca is a metaphor for all the shit that’s going through the play. The play is like a gutter.” Hope she doesn’t kiss her mother with that mouth.
So is this gutter of a play by a writer unknown to British audiences really how Spacey should launch his first season? “The play is a bit of a mystery,” says theatre director Dominic Dromgoole. “But I think it’s a brave move because it is hard to do a new play in an old-fashioned theatre like the Old Vic. He knows what he’s doing – it could become one of those small plays, like The Weir, that really capture the imagination and become big hits.”
It’s certainly a possibility. A smart comedy about modern mores with a small cast and a hitherto-unknown female continental writer. Sound familiar? Perhaps Kevin Spacey, with one bound, has discovered another Yasmina Reza, whose West End smash Art went through 30 cast changes – or at least felt like it did.
“Actually, the play is not unknown at all,” says David Liddiment, the former ITV director of programmes who is now producer of that oxymoron, the new Old Vic Theatre Company. “It was a huge hit in Holland and went on to be a tremendously successful film.”
Liddiment came across Cloaca in the Netherlands when he met a fellow TV exec, whose production company was responsible for making the film version. “He said, you have got to see this. It’s fantastic. I read it on the flight back in a literal translation and I thought it was special; showed it to Kevin, who was filming in Germany. He agreed.”
But there is more to Spacey’s first season than bleak Dutch comedy. There will be a panto, Aladdin, starring Ian McKellen as the Dame. “Ian approached us and said, ‘I’ve always wanted to do panto,'” says Liddiment. “How could you resist that? He played at the Old Vic as far back as the 1960s. It’s a great thing for this theatre to put on a panto because it revives the Old Vic’s vaudeville traditions of the 19th century.” It promises to be an interesting production, not least because it is to be directed by Sean Mathias, not noted for vaudevillian campery.
Spacey will appear in two plays: he takes the Cary Grant role in The Philadelphia Story and also plays the lead in National Anthems, a play billed as a darkly comic parable about American materialism, never before performed in Europe. Spacey reprises the role he first played in 1988 at Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre.
What’s striking about Spacey’s season is that there are, so far, no new commissions. Nor is Shakespeare or other classic theatre on the agenda. “We’ll get round to those in the second season,” says Liddiment. He argues that the Old Vic can’t risk too much, too soon. “When Peter Hall was here in the late 1990s, he was incredibly ambitious with a new play every Sunday and a complicated rep system. We’re ambitious, too, but we are also cognisant of the fact that we have to sell 1,000 tickets a night, seven nights a week.”
Does London need another American actor to lure the punters? “I think Spacey is just the kind of red-blooded leadership that the Old Vic needs,” says Nick Starr, executive director of the National Theatre. Starr is particularly keen to present Spacey’s Old Vic in the context of a south-London theatrical revival. “There’s a real buzz at the National right now, and with the Old Vic and the Globe, this part of south London is becoming a real cultural hub – just as it used to be historically.”
Sceptics might be be forgiven for thinking that the capital’s theatre scene is already sufficiently riddled with the friendly fire of US movie stars. Currently, in London, Christian Slater is reprising his Jack Nicholson impersonation in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, David Soul is interpreting the title role of Jerry Springer: The Opera, and M Emmett Walsh is in Sam Shepard’s comedy Buried Child at the National. It’s said the US smash hit Scooby-Doo in Stagefright will be arriving on our shores early next year.
What will Spacey’s impact on the London theatre scene be? “It’s true that importing a lot of Americans from other art forms is a very unhealthy, very deleterious thing,” says Dromgoole. “When you get people who come in and cash in on their celebrity, it’s really revolting.
“But Spacey isn’t like that. There’s no sense of him coming over here just to give himself a bit of kudos. He seems to be here for the long haul. He probably thinks there are things he can do in London that he couldn’t do elsewhere. I guess he wouldn’t be able to put an obscure Dutch play on Broadway.”
Dromgoole recalls that when he was directing for the Peter Hall Company at the Old Vic in the late 1990s, they once had six new works in one season. “We were wildly ambitious. But it should be like that – the Old Vic is a place for wild, potty, imaginative schemes. I hope Spacey can emulate some of that – with his own sensibility, of course.”
But Spacey faces a difficult stewardship of the Old Vic, a theatre that opened in 1818 and whose boards have since felt the not unimpressive weights of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Alec Guinness, Vivien Leigh, Peter O’Toole and Judi Dench. The Old Vic has no public subsidy, but has been fully equipped with a leaking roof, mould and cracks in the walls. The 1,000-seat theatre was saved from property developers by impresario Sally Greene in 1998, and has since been supported by a variety of private sources.
“It’s a listed building and so it’s really expensive to keep up,” says Liddiment. “Our disabled access is crap and the loos could be better.” But the management’s ambitions remain substantial – a full-time community outreach worker starts work next month, and the theatre is committed to offering 100 seats per performance at only £12 for under-25s. “The first season seems very prudent and well judged given the difficulties of having no subsidy,” says Nick Starr.
Artistically, too, Spacey is committed to having a permanent company, which should be nice for such actors as Stephen Tompkinson, Adrian Lukis, Neil Pearson and the especially excellent Hugh Bonneville – the stars of Cloaca. In his director’s letter in the programme, Spacey says he doesn’t yet know what that company will be like. “A company doesn’t just spring into existence fully formed. It evolves.” He adds: “The tastes and instincts of the artistic director play a huge part.”
What does the audience make of the tastes and instincts of the artistic director in choosing Cloaca? “I thought it was very slick, very funny, but, to be honest, a little bit trite,” says Shula Eriksson. “Not as a production – the directing and the performances were impeccable, really enjoyable – but the playwright isn’t saying anything particularly insightful. Of course, none of that will stop it being a big hit. He knows what he’s doing.”
- Cloaca opens tomorrow night at the Old Vic, London SE1. Box office: 0870 060 6628.