They needed to talk about Kevin

The Old Vic is tarnished by its refusal to face the truth about its former artistic director

Anne McElvoy

Hurricane Harvey has wrought its first bout of devastation across stage and screen — just deserts for serial abusers like Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, with a stream of gropers and sexual manipulators being exposed or about to be called to account.

The backstory of 2017 was the implosion of a long-held “anything goes” culture of immunity for stars and star-makers in the entertainment industry. We should not think for a moment that this stops with the disgraced Hollywood A-list. The theatre is next in line, with reputations and business models on the line in the months to come.

Look at the moral miasma at London’s Old Vic theatre, revived by Spacey’s presence as artistic director (and chief driver of funds) from 2005 until 2015. Now the theatre’s luminaries simultaneously claim that sexual harassment was a product of an “everybody knew” culture (a line embraced by the Royal Court’s artistic boss Vicky Featherstone), while Sally Greene, the doyenne chief exec of the Old Vic, who appointed Spacey, claims to have heard nothing of his predatory sexual behaviour towards young men.

This doublethink is at the heart of the drama world’s response to the scandal. When Spacey left the Old Vic in 2015, the gala in his honour was a roll call of the great, good and well-connected. It is possible that none of them had ever heard a worrying word about him. But frankly, I doubt it. Not long ago, a leading actor who had worked with him over long periods had told me that young men were routinely expected to be available to Spacey if they wanted his patronage. Why did they not speak out? In part, because without victims coming forward, the charge would not have been believed.

The underlying, less edifying, more damning reason is that there was no desire to know something bad about Spacey, just as there was no appetite for denouncing a grandee of left-wing theatre, Max Stafford-Clark, who has resigned from his company over allegations of misconduct towards women, or Ben Affleck, or the comedian Louis C.K. — and all the rest. A combination of company loyalty, commercial interest and a code of omertà around the casting couch from ancient Greece to the present day, has colluded to allow appalling conduct to persist. But what now? Besides the excuses of convenient ignorance, it would be nice to hear a bit more curiosity and a touch of humility (not the sort that boasts irksomely about being “humbled” at awards ceremonies).

As a panellist on Radio 4’s Moral Maze, I also confess to a degree of bewilderment about what should follow. When Jimmy Savile was exposed for his sexual crimes, the BBC excised him from re-runs of Top of the Pops, a step akin to the Soviet habit of retouching the past to rid itself of difficult memories. In terms of artistic output, this hardly mattered. But Spacey is a different case. He is a truly accomplished actor, whose Richard III at the Old Vic stands as one of its memorable triumphs. Hollywood, in its ruthless way, has already decided that Spacey is an Unperson, replaced, improbably, by Christopher Plummer in a film about the life of J. Paul Getty, due for release next year. But people will still want to watch the best of Spacey’s screen performances: House of Cards, The Usual Suspects and American Beauty (a film which now looks like a menu of its protagonist’s vices, hidden in plain sight).

A senior source at Netflix confides that talks are under way about the best way to kill off Frank Underwood, Spacey’s malevolent character, and re-focus the series on Robin Wright as his ambitious widow.

But let’s be honest — the success of the show was built in great part on watching the lead behaving badly — often sexually — and getting away with it. Spacey’s key roles have often evoked a degree of complicity. Until now, that ambiguity was sustained by a good deal of blind-eye turning. The nightmare now awaiting theatres is a welter of claims from actors of both sexes that they were done out of roles because they refused sexual advances by those with the casting power.

But let me close the book on 2017 with something to look forward to — an advance tip for a play that is headed to Broadway next year, and soon thereafter to Britain: Tracy Letts’s The Minutes, which  has just opened at the Steppenwolf theatre in Chicago.

Letts brought us August: Osage Country, and The Minutes will consolidate his reputation as one of the contemporary American playwrights best dealing with a state of national unease. His new offering is set in a meeting of the city council in the mid-western backwater of Big Cherry, where an ingénue newcomer asks the mayor (William Peterson) inconvenient questions about missing minutes from the last meeting.  That leads to an unravelling of cover-ups, graft and intimidation, underpinned by the foundational myth of the town itself — a gloriously hokum account of Civil War heroics, disguising a more shameful past of violence towards the native Indian population.

Letts’s script veers from droll realism — the excuses for not building an access ramp for the disabled careers into a classically awkward linguistic minefield, the character’s politics and outlooks reflected in the words they embrace or avoid.

The rhythms and evasions of officialese are nicely caught: a former mayor is “fondly remembered by the town, apart from the rape and subsequent abortion”. The police chief veils corruption in the leaden language of law enforcement.

Like a more sombre version of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, the study of local politics is a metaphor for wider political discomforts. The mayor’s snarky sidekick is a sinuous version of Donald Trump: “Here we go with the PC police,” he sighs, as he objects to the disabled being written off as not “normal”. 

The Minutes has the central weakness of progressive drama, in that it is adept at excoriating humbug and hypocrisy, but unsure of the remedies, beyond virtue-signalling and a vague radicalism. The hero wants the town to acknowledge the original sin of its foundation, although his proposed solution of restitution to a single individual and cancelling the ghastly “heritage festival” hardly sounds like a ringing casus belli. But the awkward join between past and present haunts this sly study of local power — the story of complicity, once again.

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