Sally Greene: 'It's going to be buzzing'

Six years after buying the Old Vic, Sally Greene has Kevin Spacey as its artistic director, Trevor Nunn directing Hamlet, and scores of rich and influential supporters. Daniel Rosenthal salutes her vision
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The Independent Culture

In last year's subscription prospectus for Old Vic Productions, of which Sally Greene is chief executive, there were as many photographs of celebrities at play as of actors on stage. Bruce Forsyth and Ronnie Corbett, Sting and Sophie Dahl, Elvis Costello and Courtney Love: all pictured at a party or gala, raising glasses and six-figure sums.

The share offer raised more than £2m, helping Old Vic Productions to stage Hamlet, directed by Trevor Nunn, which opened this week; to bankroll Kevin Spacey's inaugural season as artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre Company (The Philadelphia Story, Aladdin with Ian McKellen, and two new plays); and to team up with Working Title on the £4m Billy Elliot musical that opens in Newcastle in December. The songs in the musical are by Elton John, who had donated a pair of tickets to his "exclusive Oscar party in Hollywood" for everyone investing at least £50,000. The attendant media coverage reinforced an image of Greene that is closer to starstruck socialite than hard-nosed impresario; one paper dubbed her "the ultimate glitzy Labour luvvie".

She is sufficiently wary about our meeting at the Old Vic to have brought along her publicist, Kate Waddington (who also represents the Duchess of York), and she begins by outlining the rules of engagement: no questions about her husband, the millionaire property-developer and Labour Party donor Robert Bourne, and their teenage children, nor about the contents of the Spacey season, so as not to steal the double Oscar-winner's thunder; lots of questions, please, about Hamlet.

The 15-week run is happening, she says, "because when Trevor Nunn comes into your office and says, 'I seem to have a gap in my schedule and would love to direct Hamlet and the last time I directed it was in 1970 for the RSC - would you be interested in producing it?', you just say yes." She persuaded two other producers, the American Ron Kastner and the London-based Phil Cameron, to join her in backing Nunn's vision, in which Wittenberg's most famous dropout is played by an actor closer to 20 than the usual 40: the pale, dark-haired Ben Whishaw, 23, recently seen in His Dark Materials at the National Theatre. On the publicity flyers, Nunn suggests that "something extraordinary happens when characters who are students in Shakespeare's story are played by people of exactly student age".

Commercially, Greene agrees that choosing Whishaw, rather than a marquee name to match the drawing-power of Ralph Fiennes (the Almeida's prince in 1995) or Simon Russell Beale (the National's in 2000), pushes Hamlet toward the riskier end of the scale. "Listen," she says, "this has got a big star director and it's Hamlet and it's the Old Vic, but it's a new way of looking at it, so of course it's risky. All theatre's risky." She laughs. "But then, I don't mind risk."

When Greene talks about how her company spends its money, rather than the A-list friends she can call on as patrons, or how she restored Richmond Theatre after buying the lease from her theatrical lawyer father, Basil, in 1986, there is no showbiz gush. She has an unreliable memory for the names of actors and plays (Stones in his Pockets was "that thing at the Duke of York's with those two guys"), but total recall on figures: Old Vic Productions' Vagina Monologues was on course to take £230,000 during its week in Oxford; an Adidas advertisement on the side of the Old Vic once brought in £60,000 a year, and so on.

Of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, whose shows at her other West End theatre, the Criterion, have been delivering a profit to Old Vic Productions since 1996, she says: "You definitely get a bit bored of it. When I go to the Criterion the staff say [adopts plaintive, girlish voice], 'Sally, when's it coming off?' I say, 'When it doesn't make any money.' But I would love to use the Criterion for other things, love to."

While the Criterion has stayed open and profitable, the Old Vic was dark for roughly 18 out of 36 months in 2001-03 and reached one of several low points with the premature closure of last summer's RSC double-bill of Coriolanus and The Merry Wives of Windsor - a particular disappointment for Greene, who is an RSC governor.

She admits that those were "rocky and scary" years but, remarkably, the Old Vic Theatre Trust (chairman: Elton John), which owns and manages the theatre, did not lose money. That was because of the substantial rental income flowing in from the two large rehearsal rooms at the top of the building, and occasional use of the auditorium by cinema and TV productions, such as the recent film of Nicholas Nickleby. "We manage things very well," she says, "without a penny of subsidy."

At this point, on the subject of the Spacey programme, I begin to ask her a question of detail: "I want to know...", but before I can finish, she interjects: "...why I think it's so great." That wasn't the question, but, after interrupting, she spends the next five minutes summarising her involvement with the Old Vic, from Chris Smith's 1998 appeal for a saviour when the theatre was threatened with closure, through her scramble to raise the first £1.5m of the £3.5m purchase price, and on to her delight when she approached Spacey and he agreed to become artistic director.

I had wanted to follow up on her assertion in a newspaper interview last October that under Spacey, "the Old Vic is going to return to the days of Laurence Olivier. It's going to be buzzing. It'll be up there with the Almeida, the Donmar and the National." Those three theatres run on what Americans call the not-for-profit model, pursuing their eclectic, sometimes daring artistic policies with the aid of millions of pounds of Arts Council subsidy, corporate sponsorship and private donations. Can Greene and Spacey emulate them as a plc?

"You can generate that buzz and artistic achievement without the subsidy," she insists. "It's not the money that generates the buzz, it's the shows. That's why I have the production company. The money that will go into Kevin's company is my subsidy, kind of." And your shareholders expect a cash return as well as access to star-studded first-night parties? "Absolutely. And let me tell you, the business plan looks good. It looks very good. And when you find out what the plays are going to be, you'll agree with me." Well, up to a point.

The Philadelphia Story (running May-July 2005) is classic commercial fare and Aladdin the safest of choices for Christmas, but the two premieres - Dutch writer Maria Goo's Cloaca (September-December 2004), about the reunion of four middle-aged friends, and Dennis McIntyre's three-hander National Anthems (February-April 2005), set in 1980s suburban America - are exactly the kind of plays one would expect to find at the Almeida or the Donmar, rather than as productions at the Old Vic.

Come September, we'll begin to find out if Greene's confidence is justified. As she awaits the start of Spacey's regime, she continues to juggle other projects, including an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £2m to repair the Old Vic's leaky roof, and a plan to establish a new theatre on the site of what was once the Collins Music Hall in Islington, north London. She will take control of a "shell" structure beneath the flats being built there and has commissioned architects to fill it with a £1.5m, 300-seat auditorium that will welcome visiting companies and showcase plays by writers in the trust's development scheme, Old Vic, New Voices. She is already working the phones on the new venue's behalf and confidently predicts that the theatre will open by 2007.

Some in the theatre world recoil from the "Sally's Friends" razzmatazz surrounding the Old Vic; one leading director told me his thoughts on the subject were "too unprintable" to be voiced. Without her intervention, however, the building might well have faded into the Waterloo sunset; she may now be leading it into its most exciting era since the birth of the National Theatre in the 1960s - and her expansive ambitions may not end with the Collins. When we discuss the perils of West End producing, she says: "It's more terrifying for the bigger owners, because at any given time one or two of their theatres will be dark, and what is uglier than a dark theatre? I wouldn't mind a couple more theatres, though."

'Hamlet', Old Vic, London SE1 (0870 060 6628) to 31 July