Trevor Nunn and Kevin Spacey discuss their latest collaboration and why critics don’t know what they’re talking aboutby John Nathan / September 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
In rehearsal: Trevor Nunn (left) directs Kevin Spacey in a new production of Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic
Trevor Nunn was artistic director of the RSC for 18 years and artistic director of the National Theatre for six years. Kevin Spacey has been artistic director of the Old Vic since 2003. They first collaborated in 2005, when Nunn directed Spacey as Shakespeare’s Richard II at the Old Vic to great acclaim. The play was viewed as a breakthrough for Spacey’s directorship after a poorly received first season. This year, they are collaborating for the second time, with Nunn directing Spacey in a rare British production of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee’s 1955 play Inherit the Wind, based on the “monkey trial” of 1925, in which liberal attorney Clarence Darrow—renamed Drummond in the play—defended a teacher for breaking the Tennessee law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. With performances due to begin on 2nd October, I spoke to them at the Old Vic just two weeks into rehearsals.
Spacey: The great thing about the theatre is that there is no ownership of a play—only custodial ownership for a period.
Nunn: I always used to say at the RSC that, whatever we do with a Shakespeare, however extreme or cautious, the play is going to be there pristine for the next group who do it.
Spacey: Great plays can survive really terrible productions. They are elastic, they can be stretched.
Nathan: But is it also the case that famous productions can overshadow later revivals? Inherit the Wind was a famous film with Spencer Tracy in 1960, yet clearly you feel it has become topical again. The protagonist has a line about freedom of speech…
Spacey: “You don’t think a thing like this is ever finished?” Yes. And certainly in the case of creationists versus Darwinists, the argument at its heart is still going on.
Nunn: A recent poll found that more than 40 per cent of Americans don’t believe in evolution. And Darwin has never even been published in an Islamic country.
Nathan: Yet your audience is likely to consist of liberal, atheistic theatre-going types who already believe in freedom of speech and evolution. Don’t you worry the production will preach to the converted?
Nunn: We aren’t doing the play so that a group of self-congratulatory liberals can attack people who are of more closed mind than they are. There’s a great deal of discussion at the moment about Darwin’s theories. Yet the majority of the world’s population either know nothing of the theory or have it banned in their societies.
Spacey: One of the reasons I wanted to do the play, apart from theatrical reasons, is because I have a huge education department and in choosing a play I think to myself, “What is going to open up our education department in terms of workshops, seminars, discussions, debates for kids?”
Nathan: Is that programme something you can sustain in a commercial theatre?
Spacey: We’re not a commercial theatre.
Nathan: You’re not subsidised though.
Spacey: We’re non-profit, and all the money we make goes back into the theatre. Nobody’s buying country houses. We are a charitable organisation and everything we do through our education department, all of our community work is charitable. That’s what we do.
Nathan: And how long are you committed to staying at the Old Vic?
Spacey: I made a ten-year commitment and I’m halfway through. That hasn’t changed. Unless they fire me.
Nathan: Would you consider extending it?
Spacey: No. Ten years is it, I will be done at the end of ten years.
Nathan: In terms of collaboration, does your actor/director relationship differ because you are both directors?
Spacey: No. I’m often asked about directing actors who are also directors. I actually think they have more respect for me and more understanding of what I’m going through, more perhaps than actors who have never directed. With Trevor… we have great conversations about character, about the breadth of scenes, rhythms. And I’m someone who believes very much in putting myself in the hands of my director. For us, it’s not about anything other than wanting to make sure that this really well-constructed play has a certain…
Nunn: …texture and grain…
Spacey: …spontaneity, light. This production is as good an experience as doing Richard II. I was terrified doing that—acting with 24 British actors, who had done far more Shakespeare than I had.
Nathan: And was Kevin’s English accent essential for playing the part of Richard?
Nunn: I certainly don’t feel that that’s a strict rule. I very much want to do Shakespeare with American actors using their own accents because there is a different energy and a different use of language. Some people mock this idea but it is almost certainly true that today’s American accent is closer to the sounds that Shakespeare heard when he was writing.
Nathan: Would it be fair to describe that production of Richard II as a watershed? [Before that point the Old Vic season had come in for a lot of criticism.]
Spacey: We came with a ten-year vision, and there were a lot of people who didn’t believe in it and thought I was going to fuck off the moment they shit on my head.
Nunn: How beautifully you put it.
Spacey: Yes. If you go back and look at the story of theatrical beginnings, I was in pretty good company. The RSC was a disaster for its first three seasons.
Nunn: When Kevin decided to take on a major English classical role in a theatre that had been, in its early days, the classic theatre space in London, there was definitely a feeling that if he did not pass this test, something might be unleashed. But he didn’t. He passed, fantastically.
Nathan: And Richard II was such an emphatic success that by the time Resurrection Blues [Robert Altman’s critically mauled production of Arthur Miller’s final play] came along, that failure didn’t undermine people’s faith that you could do this.
Nunn: I don’t think that’s the way it works.
Spacey: I was getting more attention than any other artistic director in town, because you could take my name and make a headline. So that was taken advantage of. And here we are four years later and we’re still fucking being asked questions about it. It’s just boring beyond belief. At a certain point I hope it all ends.
Nathan: For a moment then I thought you were going to walk out of the room.
Spacey: No, I was just putting my bottle in the trash.
Nathan: Perhaps there’s all this fuss because people can’t believe that it’s more fun to do this than being a Hollywood star.
Spacey: I never lived in Hollywood. I had a really great time making movies for about ten-and-a-half years. Then what was I supposed to do? Do another ten years doing the same thing? No. I wanted to do something that was bigger than me, bigger than my career, bigger than all of that—and that’s this.
Nunn: Some people are theatre animals, some people are not. You will find many fine actors in movies who will never go near a theatre. But Kevin is totally a theatre animal.
Nathan: Can we talk about the vision of artistic directors? Is there such a thing?
Spacey: I remember talking to a lot of artistic directors or former artistic directors because I thought, I can glean a lot from that experience. And I’m pretty sure it was Trevor who said to me, “My artistic policy was to do the plays I wanted to do.” [Richard] Eyre said the same thing. Because it’s not a science, you can bring all the best people in the world together and still produce a turkey. That happens.
Nathan: So one criterion is your taste?
Spacey: But it’s not your singular taste. It’s not that I’m sitting in a room with a hundred plays and deciding “this one.” I’m meeting with directors, they come to me with ideas. I would never have thought to do Richard II. It wouldn’t have crossed my mind. It’s a collaborative effort.
Nathan: If I said that there is a knowing quality, an enigmatic detachment, to a Kevin Spacey performance, one that suggests his character knows something that every other character has yet to learn—is that something you recognise?
Spacey: That’s… a point of view But it’s very difficult for me to stand outside my work. I don’t think that way.
Nunn: I think it’s a very flattering observation. And with the character of Drummond in Inherit the Wind, we’re talking about a tactician and a strategist and someone of extraordinary instinct. And thank heavens we’ve got the kind of actor you’ve just described to play the role.