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It’s his crowning achievement

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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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Spacey and the Old Vic came together after he appeared on its stage in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh,” at a time when the Mirvish family that had owned the theater was putting it up for sale. Public outrage erupted at fears it might be turned into a themed pub, bingo hall or a lap-dance club.

Spacey agreed to first join the Old Vic Trust’s board of directors to help raise money to buy the property and then a committee to find an artistic director for a revived Old Vic Company.

“It just suddenly dawned on me that here I was trying to help them find someone to run this theater, and it seemed it was staring me in the face that it was what I wanted to do,” he recalled.

“This was not a decision to leave my country, it was a decision to come and work at one of the most remarkable theaters in the world.... I love coming to work every day.”

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He claims to have no overarching vision of where he wants to take the company. Rather, he says, his aim is “to do the plays we like, and that’s it, really. It’s no more complicated than that.”

With fundraising, acting, directing and trying to get around to the best of what London theater has to offer on his rare off days as well as continue his Hollywood career, Spacey has been living life at a frenetic pace.

“Sometimes it gets [so busy] that you say, ‘Whew, let’s not have another week like that one. Let’s try to clear it so I have a bit more time, because what I want is time to take things in, to percolate.’ ” But most of the time, he said, “I feel so happy to be here. I don’t think I’ve ever come on as an actor and not wanted to be on stage.”


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