NEW YORK - Theater people have talked forever about the pros and cons of having a national theater. Does America need one? Where would it be? Might it not suck the energy and money from resident theaters and indie productions in New York and around the country?
Well, what about a binational company - even a short-term one? As passions for a national theater here wane, artists continue to scatter and the financial floor drops out from culture dreams, a few smart and bankable stars in London and New York have come together for what appears to be a robust multiyear alternative. It may turn out to be just a useful packaging gimmick. These days, even that sounds idealistic.
Enter the Bridge Project, named for the Brooklyn Bridge leading to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Waterloo to London’s Old Vic Theatre and, you know, the bridge to metaphysical somewhere.
The credentials of the inaugural season, which opened at BAM last week, are impressive. This is a three-headed brainstorm by BAM, actor Kevin Spacey (controversial but devoted artistic director of the Old Vic since 2004) and director Sam Mendes (Tony winner for “Cabaret,” Oscar winner for “American Beauty” and a potential contender for “Revolutionary Road,” starring his wife Kate Winslet).
But what makes this more than another import from London, which doesn’t need another national theater, is the trans-Atlantic casting and Anglo-American creative team. Both productions in the inaugural season will showcase British masters Simon Russell Beale and Sinead Cusack alongside Richard Easton (arguably New York’s foremost classicist), Ethan Hawke and Josh Hamilton.
Those last three were part of the extraordinary company forged by Lincoln Center Theater for Tom Stoppard’s massive three-night “The Coast of Utopia” in 2006. (At that time, I wished the whole cast could be kept together as the start of a repertory company. I’ll take these as a start.)
Mendes, who ran London’s unstoppable Donmar Warehouse from 1992 to 2002, will stage both productions in this debut season. First is Stoppard’s new version of Anton Chekhov’s last masterwork, “The Cherry Orchard.” Next month is Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale.” Both alternate in repertory through March 8. The double bill then goes to Singapore, New Zealand, Spain and Germany before settling into the Old Vic for the summer and ending late August in the Athens and Epidaurus Festival in Greece.
“The idea behind the Bridge Project was born out of a simple desire,” Mendes says. “A wish for artists, collaborators and audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to experience one another’s work, talent and artistry in the theater. Having had the pleasure of working in both New York and London, I became aware of how little exchange actually exists between these two cities of great theatrical traditions.”
Can those traditions coexist? Will American actors share their style or simply be expected to learn how the English do it? It is no secret that Broadway prefers its classics with a British accent, a fact that has clenched more than a few defensive jaws around here. English directors also tend to work on Broadway more frequently than vice versa. And don’t start American playwrights talking about a commercial theater that embraces new English playwrights more eagerly than its own.
How funny, in a thoroughly disorienting way, to encounter a view from the other side of the ocean. Early last month, Guardian critic Michael Billington wrote a column about his country’s “unquestioning cultural enslavement to the United States.” He had just seen four American plays on four successive nights - Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County” (which he said was “among the great experiences of the year”), a revival of William Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life” and new plays by English favorites Neil LaBute and Tarell Alvin McCraney.
“Everywhere you look the story is much the same,” he observes. “The West End abounds in Broadway imports old and new.” He is troubled by what he calls a “trans-Atlantic deluge” of an American theater sensibility, which, unlike more wide-angle English plays, is dominated by dramas about dysfunctional families.
“To point this out is not to indulge in knee-jerk anti-Americanism. It is merely to raise the question of why our theater is so besotted with everything American.”
I guess our countries have even more in common than we thought. We both fear that our theater is being dominated by the other guys. On the other hand, Mendes says that he, Spacey and BAM executive producer Joseph Melillo came up with their collaboration because they wondered “what a production might be like if the barrier of an ocean and the separation of the theater communities could be erased.”
At the least, a walk across this Bridge should be good exercise.