Think of Kevin Spacey and you think of Hollywood and the movies, of his scintillating performances in The Usual Suspects, LA Confidential, Glengarry Glen Ross and American Beauty. So it takes a while to adjust to the idea of this internationally admired screen actor running one of London’s oldest and most prestigious theatres.
Yet his appointment as artistic director of the Old Vic should come as no surprise, for theatre has been an abiding passion of his since his childhood. ‘It’s not a question of my walking away from films, but walking towards something that has been part and parcel of my existence since I was eight,’ he says of his move from Hollywood to the Waterloo Road.
Spacey, now forty-four, has already played once at the Old Vic, electrifying audiences in 1998 with his mesmeric performance as Hickey in Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece The Iceman Cometh, directed by Howard Davies. But his association with the famous theatre goes even further back, to the early 1970s, when his anglophile parents took him to see a performance by the National Theatre company, then temporarily housed at the Old Vic and led by Laurence Olivier.
Talking three months before the start of his first season in his new job, Spacey makes clear the depth of his feelings for the building and its history. ‘I have a great affection for the Old Vic because such remarkable theatrical things have been done there,’ he says. ‘But speaking as a performer, I also think it’s simply the best theatre I’ve ever played in. The reason for this is its design. There’s no balcony over the stalls, the auditorium has a wonderful horseshoe curve, and you can push the stage out an extra ten feet. You can feel your performance going over the footlights, and then looping back again, whereas in many other theatres you’re just throwing it out into a black void.’
His appointment as artistic director happened very suddenly. After producing as well as acting in The Iceman Cometh, and transferring it from the Almeida to the Old Vic, he became involved with the board, came up with a six-figure donation to help the fighting fund – there were fears the theatre might become a themed pub or even a lap-dance club – then joined the committee which had been set up to discuss the theatre’s future and who should run it. One night, after an evening’s discussion about the theatre’s status, he was sitting in the small square opposite the theatre. ‘I suddenly realised the answer was staring me in the face,’ he remembers. ‘The building itself seemed to be speaking to me.’ His offer to take over as artistic director was accepted with alacrity by the Old Vic Trust. ‘It was an unexpected opportunity, but those are the ones you should take.’
For the moment he and his producer David Liddiment have avoided the temptation to go down the Old Vic’s traditional road signposted Shakespeare and the classics. ‘We’ll get to them eventually, but I wanted our first season to be different and unexpected, with a strong element of new writing,’ Spacey says. In the planning discussions that have gone on since his appointment two years ago, he’s made it clear he wants to stage American as well as English work, but also new plays by European writers outside the UK.
The first play of his debut season provides a striking example of this intention. Maria Goos is an award-winning writer for theatre and television in Holland, but unknown outside her own country. Her play Cloaca, a powerful study of male friendship, reunites four friends in middle age, their lives finely balanced between hope and disillusion. ‘As soon as we had a reading I realised it was a great actors’ piece,’ Spacey says. ‘It’s funny, moving and accessible, and although it’s set in Amsterdam, it will resonate with audiences everywhere. Of course it’s a risk to begin with a work by a writer unknown in Britain, but I believe it’s a risk worth taking.’ He’s so impressed by the play he plans to direct it himself, though seemingly with a light touch. ‘My approach will be to get out of its way,’ he says. ‘It’s good on it’s own, so all I can do is fuck it up.’
The season’s second production could hardly provide more of a contrast. Ian McKellen has not appeared at the Old Vic since 1965, when he played Claudio in Much Ado about Nothing. ‘Ian is one of the great actors of all time,’ Spacey declares, ‘so we’re thrilled that we’ve persuaded him to return to the Old Vic after nearly forty years. It turned out that the one thing he wanted to do was play the dame, Widow Twankey, in Aladdin. Who were we to argue with him? After all it’s unusual to get a sir and a dame in the same night.’
The Old Vic staged Aladdin in 1843, although the current version by the Australian writer Bille Brown is a new one. Spacey adds with relish: ‘The pantomime tradition doesn’t exist in America, and I liked the idea of getting involved with something of which I have no experience. The early talk I’ve been listening to suggests it’s going to be knee-slappingly funny. Sean Mathias, who will direct, has worked often with Ian, and they’re a great team.’
Spacey will be on stage himself for the second and third productions of the season. In 1988 he appeared in America in a play by Dennis McIntyre, National Anthems, and liked it so much he bought the rights. ‘I’m awfully glad I held on to them all this time, so that we can stage it now,’ he says. ‘It’s a remarkably beautiful and intense play done in real time, and a very biting and funny examination of American values.’
The season will end with The Philadelphia Story, Philip Barry’s classic romantic comedy, famously filmed by George Cukor, with Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart and Cary Grant in the starring roles. The search is still on for an actress to play Tracy Lord, the Hepburn role – ‘which is what it’s all about,’ Spacey suggests. He won’t be hiring the actor until he’s appointed the director, though in the meantime he has cast himself as C K Dexter Haven, the Cary Grant role. ‘The Philadelphia Story has several marvellous parts in it,’ he says. ‘It provides a fantastic opportunity for a big cast, so it will have a real company feel to it, but casting, won’t begin until the director is set.’
The casting for the opening play of the season is certainly hugely impressive: the cast of Cloaca will include Hugh Bonneville, Neil Pearson and Stephen Tompkinson. ‘I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to involve an array of wonderful artists.’ Spacey says. ‘All these actors have done impressive and often surprising work in film and television, as well as theatre. We also have Ingeborga Dapkunaite, a marvellous Lithuanian actress who’s doing a lot of fine theatre and film work.’
With new work high on the agenda, the Old Vic team are looking for their next playwrights in some unexpected places. ‘We’re trying to reverse the usual trend whereby people start out writing for the theatre and then move into television. So right now we’re talking to people like Paul Abbott. And boy, do they have plays in them!’ One recent platform for new work was the theatre’s 24-Hour Play project, based on an American model, during which six new ten-minute plays were written, cast, rehearsed and played in the space of one day and night by a group of writers, actors and directors. ‘It was inspiring,’ Spacey recalls. ‘In words three out of the six plays are now being developed into full plays.’
As for Shakespeare, he’s committed to doing at least one play in his second season, and other revivals are likely to be slotted into the programme before too long. And if anyone has doubts about his long-term commitment to the job, they’re likely to be dispelled by the news that he’s already starting to give a shape to his fourth and fifth seasons, and by his obvious determination to achieve two long-term goals: to establish a permanent Old Vic company, and to stage the plays in repertory.
‘It would be thrilling a little further down the line to create an ensemble company,’ he observes, ‘but it would be presumptuous to think we could get there instantly. By the third or fourth year we should have learnt enough to know which actors and directors would be best suited to such a company. It would also be fantastic if we could eventually do the plays in repertory. When I was growing up I would have loved to have seen, for example, actors like Laurence Olivier and Peter O’Toole switching parts, or to have experienced two Shakespeare plays in a day, done by the same company.’
Like everyone in today’s theatre, he’s keenly aware of the need to attract young people to the shows, especially those who rarely or never go to the theatre. As a first step his regime will be offering 100 of the best seats in the stalls and the dress circle at the attractive price of just £12 for young people under 25. ‘The theatre faces a lot of competition with this age-group – from films, videos, games, DVD,’ Spacey points out. ‘If you can get kids coming early enough, you have some hope of making theatre part of their lives: you’re planting a seed, even if you’re not necessarily going to water it.’ The next step, which will take a while to organise, will be the setting up of an educational programme with local schools.
While he has no intention of giving up his film career, but there’s absolutely no doubt that Spacey’s first love is now also his current one. ‘My primary focus is going to be theatre,’ he says. ‘It’s the most satisfying place to be as an actor.’ So how long does he expect to remain in charge at the Old Vic? ‘Until they ask me to leave,’ comes the instant reply. ‘It’s great to have the building buzzing again, and we’re going to keep it warm for a long time to come.’