Kevin Spacey’s decade at the Old Vic

Kevin Spacey will receive the special award at this year's Oliviers. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Only a year into Kevin Spacey's regime at the helm of the Old Vic in 2005, the Evening Standard's then chief theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh wrote a review of a play that Spacey starred in there by declaring, "I begin to have serious doubts about whether Kevin Spacey is the right man to run the Old Vic."

That review continued, "He launched his regime as artistic director last autumn by presenting a dud Dutch drama about miserable, middle-aged men discharging emotional waste about the stage. He caps that dire experience with an even more boring, almost interest-free event. Dennis McIntyre's National Anthems, a minor comedy that finally slithers into melodrama's gulch, mounts a flaccid, sentimental assault upon materialism and a values system that over rewards the university-educated at the expense of heroic, blue-collar public servants."

Just three years later, however, the 2008 Evening Standard Theatre Awards gave Spacey a special award for his achievements as artistic director. As Charles Spencer, then on the judging panel, wrote at the time,

A lesser man than Spacey might have quit in the face of so much hostile criticism. After all, he could earn much more in Hollywood with a tenth of the hassle. But it was now that Spacey displayed real character, sticking to his guns, and leading from the front

In between National Anthems and the Evening Standard Award's recognition, hits had duly followed, including Spacey himself starring in three sucesses: as Richard II, in O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten opposite Eve Best that subsequently transferred to Broadway, and opposite Jeff Goldblum in a revival of Mamet's Speed-the-Plow. There was also Ben Whishaw making an early, breakthrough performance in the title role of Trevor Nunn's Hamlet, and the Matthew Warchus-directed Norman Conquests trilogy, which also subsequently transferred to Broadway. (Warchus has now been announced as Spacey's successor next year at the helm of the theatre). All that, and Michelle Dockery, pre-Downton Abbey, as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion.

Spacey had, in the face of extreme pressure, proved his worth instead of caving. Even at his most beleaguered, he had said in 2006,

People calling for my resignation because of the plays we put on is the height of arrogance. The critics don't own the theatre. I find it galling that they ask for my resignation because they don't like what we do. It is upsetting when I have come to this country to do some good and bring some life back to a theatre with a chequered past. I am not asking for a free ride but I also don't believe people have the right to deliberately undermine the work we are doing.

Referring to de Jongh, he said that taking advice from him on how to run a theatre was "like taking advice on war strategy from Donald Rumsfeld." And he went on to say:

I have tried very hard not to be dragged into this debate with 11 or 12 journalists. If you put them in one row, you wouldn't fill a theatre. We ought to be judged on a level playing field. It takes a long time for any theatre company to find out what its strengths and weaknesses are.

The ship has been a lot steadier in the years since, and the Old Vic is now one of London's most reliable commercial providers of mostly classic (and classy) revivals. There have been some missteps, of course, like the Much Ado About Nothing last year that starred veteran actors Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones.

Spacey has naturally also continued to be his own biggest star at the theatre, too, appearing in Inherit the Wind and in the title role of Richard III. And currently he is back there, all-too-briefly, once again playing Clarence Darrow (the same role he played in Inherit the Wind), in David W Rintels' one-man biographical play about the celebrated US lawyer.

I missed the opening night last week as I was in New York, but catching it last night before a packed house - with a returns queue snaking down the side of the theatre outside - was to witness a star actor owning his own theatre with a mesmerising grace. He's certainly brought the theatre around - but though Darrow is clearly a personal obsession (he also played him once in a TV film called Darrow in 1991), it hasn't elsewhere in is programming been a vanity project, but an expression of his artistic generosity with other collaborators he's invited to work there.

(Some of) the critics may not have exactly welcomed him with open arms when he arrived, but I think we're going to miss him when he's gone.