Hollywood exclusive

The partnership of Kevin Spacey and Sally Greene has given the Old Vic its highest profile for years. But the veteran director Alan Strachan wonders if the theatre he loves is in the best hands
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When the National Theatre left its first home at the historic Old Vic to relocate on the South Bank in 1977, the company's farewell to the much-loved, if by then slightly shabby, house was - appositely, in the light of the theatre's past - a one-off show titled Tribute to the Lady. Its cast included Peggy Ashcroft, Albert Finney, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

When the National Theatre left its first home at the historic Old Vic to relocate on the South Bank in 1977, the company's farewell to the much-loved, if by then slightly shabby, house was - appositely, in the light of the theatre's past - a one-off show titled Tribute to the Lady. Its cast included Peggy Ashcroft, Albert Finney, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson.

The Lady was, of course, Lilian Baylis, the stubborn, cottage loaf-shaped spinster with pebble glasses and a squint who took over the run-down Royal Victoria music-hall on the unsalubrious corner of the Waterloo Road and The Cut from her aunt, Emma Cons, and turned it into a popular and populist London theatre. On risible budgets and with endless penny pinching ("Oh God," she would pray aloud. "Please send me some good actors. Cheap."), Baylis devoted her life to bringing Shakespeare and the classics to "our people" as she described the audiences who remained so loyal to the Old Vic and to her ideals.

She never was the naïve, pious old maid often assumed, after all, it was Baylis, following the dress-rehearsal of a Measure for Measure with an Isabella so resolutely pure that there was not the faintest sexual spark between her and Angelo, who took the young actress aside to instruct her brusquely: "Well, dear - all we can do now is get on our knees and pray for lust."

Actors including Ashcroft, Edith Evans, Gielgud, Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave and Alec Guinness happily earned their classical spurs on lowly salaries at the Old Vic under such charismatic directors as Michel Saint-Denis and Tyrone Guthrie. For years, until Guthrie's arrival as artistic Director, set budgets were pegged at £25, with costumes recycled until velvet rotted and rabbit-fur moulted.

With its reputation for encouraging young talent (Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Richard Burton all had early breaks there),the Old Vic Company survived the shock of Baylis's death, eventually going out in style under the undervalued genius of Michael Elliott with an ensemble including Leo McKern (an unforgettable Peer Gynt). Even after the National's glory days under Olivier in the 1960s and 1970s; with Ashcroft, Redgrave and Smith returning to their early cradle; the company-based aesthetic continued under the Prospect Company and on - if more sporadically - into the era of the theatre's Canadian ownership by the Mirvish family, when Jonathan Miller and Peter Hall oversaw seasons covering classical and new work.

The theatre world accordingly showed much initial goodwill towards the notion of a resuscitated theatre under the Old Vic Trust which acquired the building in 2000, and to appointment of Kevin Spacey as artistic director of the separate Old Vic Company. Spacey follows his Bankside near-neighbour Mark Rylance, soon to conclude a successful decade at the Globe (after a record-breaking 2004), in reviving the actor-manager tradition.

The fact that his opening production, personally directed - the unexpected choice of Cloaca by Dutch dramatist, Maria Goos - nose-dived critically, is not in itself cause for alarm (least of all at the box-office where its pre-opening advance stood at over £470,000, a figure which any Shaftesbury Avenue producer would covet for a straight play). Most new theatre regimes (Nick Hytner's at the National is a remarkable exception) take time to find their feet; theatregoers with longer memories may recall that Olivier's inaugural National production at the Old Vic ( Hamlet with Peter O'Toole) was a bottom-numbing bore, tepidly received; or that Richard Eyre's directorial track record on the South Bank involved some unsettling early stumbles.

But there has undeniably grown in many minds an insistently nagging worry about the Vic's new identity and its relationship with its history. The collective memories of actors and audiences often leave a legacy within a building that can charge it with a kind of moral force - and the Old Vic is a prime example. And what seems in jeopardy now, is that less immediately definable moral quality, reinforced by those decades of work by Baylis and her heirs, namely their commitment to a genuinely populist ideal.

Of course the demographics of the Bankside area, the capital itself and the whole sociology of the theatre have all altered, and no theatre should be preserved in the aspic of sentiment, yet the Old Vic could well be in danger of becoming - like Cloaca - a classic case of style over substance. Almost imperceptibly it seems to have come perilously close to acquiring an identity at the polar extreme from its heritage, risking increasing charges of elitism.

The current face of the Old Vic arguably owes less to Spacey - despite the nimbus of celebrity around him - than to another forceful woman, albeit one in decided contrast to Baylis. Sally Greene is styled in the Cloaca programme and often described (uncorrected) in the press as the "owner" of the theatre; in fact, she is the chief executive of the Old Vic Trust, which acquired the building in 2000.

As the Old Vic Company's landlord, the Trust has no direct say in major artistic matters such as the choice of repertoire (another Waterloo Road-based company led by Greene, Old Vic Productions plc, invests in commercial productions - including Spacey's season - and will co-produce next year's Billy Elliot musical involving close Greene associates Elton John and director Stephen Daldry), but Greene certainly has a good deal to do with the theatre's new identity and presentation.

The partner of property magnate Robert Bourne (an Old Vic Trustee), Greene, a former actor, has entrepreneurial experience including a spell at the helm of the Richmond Theatre. Greene also has the lease of the Criterion Theatre on Piccadilly Circus, one of the West End's most desirable smaller-capacity houses for plays, where the Reduced Shakespeare Company has been allowed to take up what, after a decade, threatens to be permanent residence.

The never-less-than achingly chic Greene - her detractors tend to concentrate on the externals in describing her as a fashion-plate airhead dabbling in theatre - has been always a tireless networker. Sir Elton John (chairman of the Old Vic Trust), Lord Attenborough, Stephen Daldry, Lynn Forester de Rothschild (all trustees), Peter Mandelson and Chelsea Clinton (photographs of some of whom adorn the Old Vic's programme) are among her extensive circle and Spacey, who scored a big success in The Iceman Cometh at the Old Vic after its Almeida run, seemed a major coup for the theatre (he was wooed during Iceman by Greene, then a trustee).

Somewhat curiously, Greene's biography in the Cloaca programme claims that "she appointed Kevin Spacey" to the director's post - unusual powers to be vested even in a trust's chief executive. Certainly the theatre seemed to airbrush out of history the previous breathlessly excited announcement that Matthew Warchus, director of Yasmina Reza's international success Art (to which Cloaca was widely compared) would be the Vic's new artistic director.

Unquestionably Greene has always had a truffle-hound's instinct for who is "hot" and a Mandelsonian understanding of the manipulation of publicity. In the run-up to the first season, the publicity department seemed heavily to focus on Spacey as the theatre's USP. It is an indication of Spacey's star-wattage that although he gave only a handful of shrewdly selected interviews, the advances for Cloaca and the following season were so high. But it suggests, too, that in order to maintain such figures, future seasons may demand Spacey's commitment to appearing and directing, as well as to running the company, a weighty and potentially counter-productive pressure.

Everything about the rebranded Old Vic seems to aim to ooze style and glitz. At Cloaca, initially, you could find out cast and production details only if you bought a programme, which costs £5 - high even by West End standards. Less a theatre programme than a glossy magazine, it comes as no surprise that the "programme" is a Conde Nast publication out of Vogue House (for which in the 1990s, Greene wrote a theatre-gossip column in Tatler). Only after weeks of previews and performances did the theatre print a free cast list, available "only if you ask for it" according to the marketing director.

Ticket prices for Cloaca were pitched to the very top prevailing commercial theatre level for a straight play - £40 for a best seat. The management doubtless would counter that 100 seats at £12 were retained at each performance for the under-25s audience; that, however, is less than 10 per cent of capacity. The management would also argue that the operation receives no public subsidy (neither, let it be said, does the Globe).

That atmosphere of casual but friendly welcome, which used to stamp the Old Vic's character, seems to have changed utterly. Front-of-house and bar staff are now all gussied up in sombre formal black and seem to share a house-style manner of impersonal - not to say chilly - hauteur. Certainly it is one of the factors which fail to bear out the claim - palpably sincere, though it may be - by the company's producer, David Liddiment (an ex-television executive who "discovered" Cloaca) that: "We are trying to live up to the values of this building".

Much of the theatre's restyling reflects the impression of rarefied exclusivity which Spacey - the charitable would say perhaps unintentionally - conveyed when he sounded off snootily on Radio 4's Front Row about theatre audiences' lack of manners. Of course mobile phone etiquette is important in a theatre (as everywhere else), but it is a subject on which it is somewhat startling to be given lessons by Spacey.

In Spacey's America, of course, the corporate ideal of theatre and of theatre funding is more the norm. But the worry remains that the marriage between him and the fiercely image-conscious directorate at the Old Vic (even if some of the early teething troubles are addressed) may lead to a unique theatre's identity becoming submerged - and then lost - under a topcoat of selling the sizzle and of celebrity-biased, splashily fashionable flim-flam.

Intriguingly the theatre's next venture (prior to two Spacey-headlined American plays for 2005) belongs to a genre which should be the very antithesis of elitist, when pantomime returns to the Waterloo Road with Aladdin. Class is stamped all over most of the announced ingredients of Aladdin which will see Sir Ian McKellen drag up as Widow Twankey (can he match such Great Dames as Stanley Baxter, Les Dawson or Berwick Kaler?) directed by Sean Mathias. Both are panto virgins but with Maureen Lipman and Sam Kelly also featuring, the comedy potential is hugely boosted.

Spacey's is an undeniably awesome job; the building's recent history is one of attempts to find a niche for a 1000-plus seater among London's funded and commercial houses (even under the Mirvishes it found no lasting profile) and the National, the Globe (and, soon, a revamped Young Vic) are all close competition.

Spacey had comparatively little run-in time for his first season and there must have also been some inevitable early culture-shock, however strong his Anglophilia. So hopefully he will come to find his own artistic director's voice to emerge from behind the branding and the marketing-speak. And perhaps the regime - trust and company together - might now re-examine its relationship to a special building and at the very least consider the development of a more accessible house-style, one more genuinely warm, surely especially vital for Aladdin, which ought to be slap-bang in the centre of the Old Vic's populist tradition.

Despite the wobble of Cloaca, Spacey's personal account of goodwill is still clearly in credit. Nevertheless, the uneasy suspicion lingers that he, Greene and their inner circles of branders and marketers might be wise to take heed of the final words of Tribute to the Lady. At its close, Peggy Ashcroft - concluding a mesmerising portrayal of Lilian Baylis's commitment and iron integrity - advanced to the forestage to exhort the audience and those who might be responsible for the future of the building to respect its legacy: "And if you don't," she threatened, glasses glinting in the shaft of a fading spotlight, "I shall come back and haunt you."

'Aladdin' opens 17 December at the Old Vic, London SE1 (0870 060 6628); 'Cloaca' ends 11 December