When Kevin Spacey’s vanquished Richard III is hoisted high above the stage of the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sunday, the ambitious British-American exercise in cross-pond cross-pollination called the Bridge Project will officially come to an end.
I suspect most in the audience will not be aware of the valedictory significance of the occasion. Spacey’s performance – or rather the star power that drew attention to it – has surely been the primary allure of “Richard III,” which was the biggest hit of the five shows that the Bridge Project has presented at the Brooklyn Academy in its three seasons of productions, beginning in 2009.
Will the project’s ending be mourned? Possibly by avid theatergoers who search out high-toned, prestige theater production, whether presented on Broadway or in Brooklyn. But while its aspirations were exemplary, the Bridge Project’s appearances were sporadic enough that its absence is hardly likely to leave a gaping hole in anyone’s cultural calendar.
The enterprise was announced as a limited venture among the Brooklyn theater, the director Sam Mendes’ Neal Street Productions, and the Old Vic, under the artistic directorship of Spacey. Three seasons in London and in New York were projected, as well as international touring. Notwithstanding Spacey’s description of the venture as an attempt to “to create a stronger bridge between the culture in London and in New York on a more permanent basis,” it was only semi-permanent. The mixed British and U.S. casts were intended to do an end run around the rules established by Actors’ Equity that can make it difficult for British actors who are not stars to perform in America and to allow talented U.S. classical actors to ply their wares on international stages.
The company achieved its goal of bringing together ensembles of British and U.S. actors for significant runs of classic plays – four of the five were Shakespeare, with Chekhov’s “Cherry Orchard” being the fifth – but a few speed bumps along the way suggested how very daunting the task would prove to be.
The initial season was postponed when Stephen Dillane, scheduled to play Hamlet and Prospero, had to withdraw because of a family emergency. An enterprise of this scale needed star power, and all three seasons featured name-brand actors in leading roles: Simon Russell Beale played Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale” and Lopakhin in “The Cherry Orchard,” both in 2009. Dillane, a Tony winner for Tom Stoppard’s “Real Thing,” duly appeared as Prospero in “The Tempest” in the second season in 2010, and as Jaques in “As You Like It.” And of course Spacey was the humpbacked Richard this year.Another speed bump: The plan to present two large-scale productions in repertory – one of the stated aims – was quietly shelved for the final season. In contrast to the previous Bridge Project seasons “Richard III” was the only show in town this time around. Numbers no doubt had something to do with it. The company’s first season, which was financed just before the big economic crash, cost more than $6 million to produce. Logistics too: “Richard III” had a more extensive international tour than the previous shows, thanks no doubt to Spacey’s fame.
If I were to grade the Bridge Project’s achievement in terms of aesthetics, I’d give it a solid B. (With an asterisk: I missed “The Winter’s Tale.”) Mendes, who directed all five productions, and Spacey deserve much credit for bringing respectable and handsomely mounted classical theater productions not just to New York and London, but also to such far-flung places as the ancient theater of Epidaurus in Greece, Istanbul and Singapore.
But not one of the productions was fully distinguished. During the years spanned by the Bridge Project, I was more excited by home-grown Shakespeare: the “Othello” from Theater for a New Audience as well as the Public Theater’s scintillating “Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice.” Meanwhile last fall’s Classic Stage Company production of “The Cherry Orchard” was far more engaging than the Bridge Project’s lackluster version.
How did the project fare in terms of some of its other goals? One minor aim was to dispel the notion that British and U.S. approaches to classical acting are somehow discordant or at odds. Certainly the ensemble casts in the shows I saw showed no jagged fault lines in technique. Americans are now accustomed to Shakespeare in accents both British and American, and the ear adjusts quickly.
Would I have liked to see a few more Americans in prominent parts? Certainly. Generally speaking it seemed to me that the Americans involved played less substantial roles than the British actors did, excepting of course Spacey’s star turn.
That’s nothing new. New York theatergoers have also become accustomed to seeing mixed U.S. and British casts on Broadway, but the stars center stage are usually British, while the Americans are the supporting players: think of “Mary Stuart” with Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, with an excellent cast of Americans playing their courtiers, or “Boeing-Boeing,” with Mark Rylance presiding over a supporting cast that included Christine Baranski and Gina Gershon.
In discussing the goals for the Bridge Project, Spacey cited the difficulty involved in importing productions like these, mentioning the extra time and money necessitated to recast roles in “The Iceman Cometh” when that production transferred to Broadway from London. Fair enough, but if Actors’ Equity were to relax its rules, I expect there would be a lot more traffic coming in to Kennedy Airport from Heathrow than the other way around.
The National Theater in recent years has led the way in bringing Americans to London, importing the original casts of both “August: Osage County” and “Fela!” for significant runs. But there remains a trade imbalance between the two cities when it comes to theater: Broadway imports more from London than the West End imports from New York.
The Bridge Project, of course, was not meant to redress that imbalance, but to make it easier for U.S. and British actors to work together on classic plays. For a limited time, under very specific circumstances. That the endeavor has not been extraordinary enough to warrant continuation only points up the difficulties involved in creating truly international collaborations of this kind.
It took two major theater luminaries four years to achieve the seemingly modest goal of mounting five classical productions with mixed U.S. and British casts. It doesn’t sound so very challenging, does it? But then most of us don’t really think much about the engineering and labor involved in its construction when we drive across the Brooklyn Bridge.