CULTURE

Some therapeutic drama heading to Epidaurus

?When Sam [Mendes] and I stood at the entrance of Epidaurus he leaned toward me and said, ?If they hadn?t built this place, none of us would have a job.?? In his rather small office space at London?s Old Vic Theater, a barefoot Kevin Spacey, clad in blue bermuda shorts and a white T-shirt, rested his legs on the table.

It was 11.30 p.m. and Spacey had just finished performing in a three-hour production of William Shakespeare?s ?Richard III? directed by Mendes, in which the Academy Award-winning American actor and the landmark British theater?s artistic director (for the last seven years) was hardly ever offstage.

The 1,040-strong audience had just given him a standing ovation, as they have done at the end of every single performance since the play opened on June 18, rather uncommon behavior for British theater viewers. The conversation that followed was equally unexpected. Traveling to London to see the performance, a Bridge Project production going onstage at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus as part of the Greek Festival from July 29 to 31, the deal was to meet with three of the cast?s leading actors, but that did not include Spacey. The actor?s good mood, however, turned a mere handshake into a short interview.

The three-year-old transatlantic Bridge Project, which brings together British and American actors (a collaboration between the Old Vic and the Brooklyn Academy of Music), will come to an end in January next year. In 2009, Shakespeare?s ?Winter?s Tale,? another Bridge Project production directed by Mendes and starring Ethan Hawke, was staged in Epidaurus. Back then, Spacey watched the onstage action as a member of the audience.

Back in London, his Old Vic office space reflected its nearly two-centuries-old history — the theater company was originally established in 1818.

?The artistic director?s position came at a time when I wished to make a change in my life. It was some kind of destiny,? said Spacey, who revived the troubled institution. ?I believe that the state ought to support theater and culture, but I don?t think that these two should depend solely upon the state. The Old Vic is now able to carry on without the state.?

Richard III must be an absolutely exhausting role.

I have never spent so much time onstage in one single performance. And I have never felt so much energy at the end of each performance. This work was written by a young and inexperienced Shakespeare. He had yet to learn what he learned later on, which was to give the lead role some breathing space. You can?t have the lead actor taking part in nine consecutive scenes without a break. In ?Richard III? you just have to. It?s a very demanding role. However, because Shakespeare was also an actor, at one point he realized that he shouldn?t do this.

Besides the Richards, II and III, have you interpreted other works by Shakespeare?

I grew up with Shakespeare, but no, not as a professional. My first role was in ?Henry I Part I,? in Central Park. I had just graduated from the Juilliard School. Then I did ?Richard II? at the Old Vic, in my second year here, and now this.

Have you ever thought of acting in an ancient drama at Epidaurus?

Right now I don?t have a single second to think of anything else besides this role. Let?s wait for this to finish and we?ll see.

In a few days you?ll be heading to Greece, a country in the middle of a major economic crisis. What is your current image of the country?

I?m not spending any time in Athens to experience the wrath, disappointment and anger at the center of the city. So I will not come into any direct contact. I do hope that people will get a chance to come and see the performance in Epidaurus, to experience all that I did when I watched ?The Winter?s Tale.? Irrespective of the financial situation around the world, people need to share the theater experience. If you take a look at the numbers of tickets being sold in the West End and on Broadway you?ll be impressed. More tickets are being sold now than during any other season in their history. Perhaps when times are tough and people face challenges…

They also look for answers.

Maybe it?s not just that. When you come across characters like Richard III you think that, at the end of the day, things are not that bad. He is a kind of ?doctor theater? who steps in. No matter what is going on in your life, wherever you might be, no matter how disappointed you might be feeling, when you go through that door, you go on stage and ?doctor theater? cures you.

And the audience is also cured.

There is no doubt about it.

So why are you leaving the Old Vic? You?ve said in the past that the company needs ?new blood.? What do you mean by that?

I?m leaving in 2015. There is plenty of time until then. But of course you need new blood, like in all theaters. Take a look at the history of artistic directors. Some people stick around for 10 years, others for less, some for more. I have a very specific vision and personal taste. It?s time for somebody else to come along and put himself to the test. Why should I stay on for longer? I want to do lots of different things in my life, not just one.

What kind of changes are you making at Epidaurus, in terms of the play?s adaptation and interpretation?

The performance is not my business, it?s Sam?s. I have not stood on that stage. I have only watched performances. It?s a very beautiful theater, it?s electrifying. I will discover what it?s like when I?ll be onstage, facing the audience. You can?t speak of any theater beforehand. Theaters are very different when they?re empty, the sound is different. So I have absolutely no idea. Everything changes in the presence of the audience.

Have you ever felt homesick living in London?

London is my home, I have been living here for the last eight years. Every now and then I go away in secret to make a movie, but that?s the only time I?m not here. And it will be my home until I find another one.

What was the greatest difficulty you encountered during rehearsals for the play?

Forgetting the pressure and weight of those who interpreted this particular role in the past, my job was to stay in one room, focus on the role, trust Sam and the rest of the cast and make this production our own. To leave my expectations outside. Things became easier when I realized that Sam had come up with a great cast of British and American actors. As far as I?m concerned, this production is the epitome of the word ?troupe.? We are a company with a capital C.