Inside Spacey's Old Vic. Flickr/Peter Morgan. Some rights reserved.
The Old Vic has become a powerhouse of creative theatre under Kevin Spacey’s direction. It is part of an unofficial network of theatre that is neither commercial nor institutional. This may point the way our culture should and could go.
The Honours list with its references to empire may be outmoded, but for all that some honours are deserved. The knighthood for Kevin Spacey is a case in point. For more than a decade he worked tirelessly at the Old Vic, not simply keeping an old theatre alive, but creating an organisation that will continue to give a range of supporting facilities to actors and playwrights, especially in the earlier stages of their careers. The offices of the Old Vic don’t have the slick, streamlined appearance of a commercial enterprise. There’s a more functional air, a more purposeful air with a team dedicated to theatre. The atmosphere is first name informal. The effect is energising. These people are not careerists, they are committed professionals. The presence of such people is vital to the network of good theatre that exists despite the perennial lack of support in a society of material values.
By contrast, the Old Vic is generous in the support it can offer. What it cannot do is give space to all it would like to see on its stage. But it can, and it does, offer serious advice and encouragement of positive value. Once you are on their radar, they take an interest. They’ll come out and see your work if they can. They’ll go out of their way in a manner that might educate others in the ways of sympathy and concern that embody a truly liberal spirit, all too rare in a competitive culture. The Old Vic is not the only institution of encouragement, but its singularity is the fact of it being a commercial organisation. It is run for profit. Remarkably, the profit is of more than one kind. As such it could serve to broaden our general understanding of the ethics of commerce.
There was some doubt when Kevin Spacey was appointed to run the Old Vic. It was widely said that a Hollywood star could not understand English theatre. What were we going to see? Gimmicky productions with movie stars patronising the London stage? But rather than Marie Antoinette dressing up as a milkmaid we saw idealism tempered by a proven ability to realise those dreams in practical terms. The sacrifice of money and glitz testifies to the sincerity. Kevin Spacey was determined to create something that could work and survive.
It’s a common feeling among Hollywood stars that acting in the English theatre has a legitimacy that the movies [or even Broadway] don’t have. The compliment is genuine, but it springs from a romanticised picture of England as a Brideshead theme park. By contrast, Kevin Spacey clearly operated according to a deep understanding of English theatre, matched by some hard-headed calculations and a determined gamble that was not wise but brave indeed. The enterprise has turned out to be an imaginative leap of a kind aspirants and organisations might learn from, if we have the humility to do so.
Humility does not mean ‘knowing your place’. It means being prepared to learn from others. It means tempering personal ambition with a degree of concern for the common good. The Royal Court’s GRIT project is an example of this. Brief sketches blogged have offered ‘everyday acts of resistance’. Among other things it is resistance to complacency, cynicism and despair. What is required is an essentially altruistic energy. What is encouraged is a bond of feeling that in the face of an obstructive political climate urgent writing has a voice. Writers have been urged to participate, an invitation that may stimulate work more substantial than a few, ephemeral lines. This is a conversation that established channels cannot control.
There is a network of theatrical voices that will not be silenced. The dynamic is generated by an informality that is essential to its character and purpose. It is there to challenge, not by ‘cutting-edge’ clichés, but by considered responses of many kinds. The poetics are not lost in the politics. These are not shallow gestures, for this is not dinner-party liberalism but writing that goes down beneath the surface of fashionable opinion and received wisdom. This is writing that knows its place is not set at the table.
When a place can be found it is through those elusive areas of altruism. A case in point is UNESCO, serving the world rather than the interests of class and nation. The UNESCO Cities of Literature have given voice to active communities of the written and spoken word. There was a time so much was said about community as an abstract ideal without identifying specific social needs. To be a City of Literature is to relate writing to its local reality, and to give access to the excluded within that locality. It is a literature that makes something happen, that expresses new styles of moral architecture and a cultural change of heart.
Theatre is an empty space. Writing is a blank page. The silence challenges the artist to say something. We need to express our perceptions of the world. Grumbles at the bus stop are transformed by metaphor and coherent thought into a challenge to orthodoxies of whatever kind. If an orthodoxy cannot meet the challenge of opposition it does not deserve respect. A leavening of dissent is as necessary as the morning’s sunrise.
There are, however, those who prefer darkness and silence. They seek unquestioning assent. They wish to be adored. They seek to be ‘the envy of the world’ as if envy were a virtue. They seek a citadel so secure that nothing happens. They want not life but perfection.
A living culture has its spontaneous, makeshift, rough elements. To be universally liked is to be either drearily bland or in large measure misunderstood. There has to be room for doubt. Life is not perfect. It is within the imperfections that we discover how things are as they are and how we may respond with creative intelligence.
We need those empty spaces outside the mainstream. The time comes, as it should, when institutional theatre accepts the challenge. The success of Peter Brook has been to work within conventions that he extends in the never-ending search for the essence of performance. Determined on his course, he inspires others not to emulate his genius but to work according to his principle: theatre, like society, is in perpetual need of reform. Nothing is sacred except the act of transforming thoughts and feelings into art. Or so I understand it to be.
The enemy is convention, the acceptance of things because they are there. The hope is to create the possibilities that transcend their limitations. Not to understand the urgency of this task is not to be alive.