National Anthems @ Old Vic, London

cast list
Kevin Spacey
Mary Stuart Masterson
Steven Weber

directed by
David Grindley

written by
Dennis McIntyre

A few years back when Kevin Spacey was still riding high on his Oscar winning turn in The Usual Suspects and his chilling cameo in David Fincher’s Se7en, he pretty much single-handedly kick started the recent trend for big Hollywood stars doing stints in the West End with his acclaimed performance in The Iceman Cometh. Then it seemed he could do no wrong.

It’s been a very different story this time round. The novelty has clearly worn off and the critics have been particularly savage about his residency as artistic director at the Old Vic, though all the crooning on Parkinson and dubious nocturnal dog walking incidents haven’t helped matters. Sure Cloaca was a dud. But a well acted and sensitively staged dud, a misjudgement rather than an overwhelming failure. But, with the exception of Mark Lawson’s measured, intelligent piece in the Guardian, most journalists seemed to have relished the opportunity to rip into Spacey, and you do have to wonder how much of that was purely about his work on the stage.

And so we come to National Anthems which, following the interlude of Ian McKellen’s dabblings in panto, is the second big dramatic production of Spacey’s Old Vic stewardship. Set in 1980s Detroit, Dennis McIntyre’s play is an intense three-hander starring Spacey, in a role he first played for Connecticut’s Long Wharf Theatre in 1988, as fire-fighter Ben Cook who, one night, knocks on the door of yuppie couple Arthur and Lesley and sets about talking his way into their home.

The subdued first act proceeds slowly, the cast stranded behind plush sofas as we absorb Arthur and Lesley’s exquisitely Eighties lifestyle: the Rolex and the BMW, the tasselled curtains and the objets d’art. Initially Ben reveals little about himself and Spacey, his voice gruffer and less modulated than usual, ends up playing drinking games and doing magic tricks to ingratiate himself with his hosts – but even at this stage it’s clear that his character is damaged in some way.

Things pick up considerably in the second half. Ben divulges the fact that he saved a woman’s life during a recent fire, disobeying orders to do so. Egotistical lawyer Arthur struggles with this information, and soon afterwards the already highly competitive banter between him and Ben escalates into an actual physical confrontation. The sofas are swept aside and the expensive furniture forgotten, as an impromptu football game begins in the living room. It’s a compelling scene that, rather predictably, ends in an eruption of emotions. Casual racism and unchecked aggression overwhelm the proceedings, and deep-rooted truths are revealed.

The opportunity to see Spacey on the stage was always going to be the main draw here. And he certainly delivers, really putting himself through it, both physically and emotionally. Steven Weber is comparably excellent as the loathsome Arthur, and Mary Stuart Masterson does what she can with an underdeveloped role. Dennis McIntyre’s drama has not dated especially well, but as a snapshot of a particular time it is still effective. It may not say anything particularly new about America or about the nature of men, but the entire audience appeared to genuinely connect with the human element of the drama, a factor few critics appear to have taken into account.

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