Kevin Spacey – Dark Days For The Old Vic?

The Old Vic is not in crisis.

This is the message Kevin Spacey, the venerable theatre’s artistic director and double Oscar winning actor, has been keen to get across to the theatre-going public.

Speaking in a recent interview with Michael Billington in the Guardian, he maintained that, while his work at the theatre over the past two years has resulted in digs from the critics, it has also been – for the most part – commercially successful.

Besides, he said, he’s in this for the long term; this is a ten year project. He has big plans for the theatre’s future and he encourages his detractors to look at “what’s going to happen on that stage at the Old Vic over the next eight years.”

Yet, this display of defensiveness comes on the back of the early closure of Resurrection Blues following a critical savaging on a scale of which is rarely seen. The Observer quipped that it contained “Plenty of blues. No Resurrection.” The Independent was blunter labelling it a “terrible embarrassment.”

Michael Coveney later wrote in the Observer that the production had improved somewhat when he saw a later performance of the play. But it was too late, audience numbers were down and there were reports of off-stage animosity between some of the actors – indeed Jane Adams left the production early – so it was pulled, one week shy of its original closing date.

When Resurrection Blues was announced last year, it sounded as if it had the potential to be one of 2006’s theatrical highpoints. A staging of Arthur Miller’s penultimate play directed by legendary film director Robert Altman – on paper it sounded exciting. The idea of the idiosyncratic Altman doing theatre was certainly an intriguing one. But even before it opened things started to go awry; Altman gave the impression in interview of being under-prepared and on the first night the actors were beset, according to Spacey, by “a set of nerves the like of which I have never seen.”

The actors suffered “a set of nerves the like of which I have never seen.”
– Kevin Spacey on Resurrection Blues.

And now it appears that the Old Vic will remain dark for the next few months until the planned start of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon For The Misbegotten, which will again star Spacey. When the current season was announced there was this glaring gap in schedule; news of what was due to fill the empty months was supposed to be imminent, but it never arrived. This will inevitably mean that the levels of expectation and critical scrutiny for Moon will be dauntingly high.

It’s a shame it has come to this, because, after a muted first season, Spacey was just starting to pick himself up in the eyes of the critics. The slick Trevor Nunn production of Richard II in which he starred won mostly favourable notices and this was followed by a second helping of Sir Ian McKellen dragging up panto-style in Aladdin which went down equally well and played to packed houses.

Indeed the public response to what Spacey is doing at the Old Vic has not always been in keeping with the critical reaction. Certainly in the performances I saw of both Cloaca and National Anthems the audiences responded warmly, but this was more to do with the calibre of performances – Hugh Bonneville and Stephen Tompkinson in the former, Spacey himself in the latter – than the chosen material, which was distinctly mediocre. Neither play was abysmal yet they were undeniably weak choices, especially to put on in his debut season as artistic director.

“If, after 10 years, I hand over a theatre that’s been successful because I’ve been in all the plays, then I will have failed.”
– Kevin Spacey on the Old Vic.

The Philadelphia Story – featuring a strong performance by Jennifer Ehle in the Tracy Lord role – may have fared better, but it was still accused of being too populist, being a ‘soft option’ and of succeeding, according to musicOMH critic Lisa Hunt, despite, rather than because, of Kevin Spacey’s presence in the cast. The man himself didn’t help matters through media over-exposure, crooning smugly on Parkinson to promote his tepid Bobby Darin biopic Beyond The Sea.

There was inevitable talk that he was being poorly advised, that he didn’t understand the tastes of a London audience – both reasonable assessments. Yet there was a definite gleefulness to some of the critical sniping. Some sections of the press have it in for Spacey without a doubt; the Evening Standard’s coverage of his recent pronouncements that all is well at the Old Vic was so aggressively negative it was almost amusing.

The theatre’s smaller successes, the exciting 24 Hour Plays project and the youth-friendly pricing scheme (pre-bookable not subject to standby; other West End venues take note) have gotten rather lost along the way.

What’s most evident from his conversation with Billington, is that Spacey seems to be struggling with the fact that his own fame, his movie star status, is both the reason why his directorship has been subject to such intense press scrutiny and is also his best way out of it. His greatest success so far has been his Richard II. People want to see Spacey on stage, they want to see him tackling great roles. Though Nunn’s production was slightly soulless, Spacey’s performance was a strong one. Given the right part, he’s an excellent stage actor, engaging, compelling. But, perhaps understandably, he’s reluctant to foreground himself too much. “If, after 10 years,” he concluded, “I hand over a theatre that’s been successful because I’ve been in all the plays, then I will have failed.”

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