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It's his crowning achievement

After a rough first year, Kevin Spacey is reinspiring passion for London's Old Vic.

October 16, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

London — THE Old Vic is becoming the house that Kevin rebuilt.

Launching his second season as artistic director of the venerable theater on London's South Bank, which he has helped rescue as his personal mash-note to the British stage, Kevin Spacey is bringing an aura of excitement and passion to the enterprise.

This month, he appeared in the title role of Shakespeare's "Richard II," directed by Trevor Nunn and played out as a contemporary political drama complete with scary allusions to hostage-taking executions and Big Brother media manipulation.

Spacey's Richard veers from icy arrogance to rueful self-pity as he falls from lofty power to prison to his grave, wowing the British press as he surrenders his crown to the sharp-suited Ben Miles as Henry Bolingbroke.

"You would need a heart of stone not to be stirred by Kevin Spacey, oozing pomp and circumstance, in the empty glitter of Trevor Nunn's modish, modern-dress production of 'Richard II,' " said Nicholas de Jongh in London's Evening Standard.

"This is the show we've been waiting for since Kevin Spacey took over ... a chance to see this great actor in a leading Shakespearean role," said Charles Spencer in the Telegraph.

In a performance full of electricity despite an unfortunate series of power surges in the neighborhood of the Old Vic, Spacey conveyed the feeling that the inner King Richard was infinitely more sympathetic, practical and universal than his regal exterior, seen through a prism of fame and celebrity.

The same might be said of Spacey, the two-time Oscar-winning actor from South Orange, N.J., who raised eyebrows when he announced that he was moving to London to revive the Old Vic, one of the city's oldest theaters, with a repertory ensemble that would mount four plays a year, at least two of them starring himself.

The first season started roughly, with Spacey attacked on all fronts with poor reviews and criticism for an eclectic, if not bizarre, choice of plays. ("The line between courage and folly can be awfully thin, and Spacey has been crossing it," the Times snorted.)

But the public responded to the novelty of a Hollywood actor taking on responsibility for preserving a much-loved British theatrical institution, a theater whose lineage goes back to before Victoria was queen. And as the season wore on, the house receipts grew.

Spacey seems to have endured the ups and downs with resigned good humor, thinking like a baseball manager putting together a winning team and thinking in terms of seasons, not just the next ballgame.

In tennis shoes and traces of stage makeup, Spacey sat down recently with American reporters near the lobby bar to discuss his progress.

"It's always been my belief that it's going to take a decade to build this theater and this new company," he said. "And when I say build this theater, I mean actually build this theater. We need about [$35 million] to renovate this building."

As for building the company, he said, "I could never presume that I could come here and throw myself in the bowl with 50 actors and we become an instant company. A company is something that takes a long time.... It'll take five seasons to just establish it, and then five seasons to have a lot of fun."

The first season's choice of plays was panned: "Cloaca" by Dutch playwright Maria Goos was too obscure; "The Philadelphia Story" too lightweight; "National Anthems" too American; and "Aladdin" -- well, it was a Christmas pantomime.

But Spacey defends the choices. "We made a decision that we were not going to start with what everyone expected us to start with," he says, referring to Shakespeare, Ibsen and other classical productions. "We began with interesting, inviting, different, refreshing work that has appealed to a broader audience."

The strategy seems to be working. More than three-quarters of a million theatergoers turned out for the Old Vic's first season under Spacey's stewardship, despite a limited marketing budget and its location near the busy Waterloo station. Advance sales alone for "Richard II," which is to run through Nov. 26, reportedly totaled 500,000 pounds, or about $875,000.

"Sometimes the critics will be with you and sometimes they won't," Spacey said. "But the audience was -- and the most important relationship a theater company builds is with its audience."

The Old Vic was famous for its Shakespeare productions, and the pantheon of actors associated with the theater include Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud and Judi Dench.

Spacey points out that other companies, such as the National and the Royal Shakespeare, were not overnight successes. "Sometimes we forget that the critical receptions that they got in their first years were pretty darn near what we've gotten this year," he said. "I expected it. It's not as bad as I thought it would be. It's not been as personal as I thought it would be."

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