He is one of British theatre's great white hopes but has not directed on home turf since he left the Donmar after a decade in charge.
But Sam Mendes is being lured back after five years to direct some of the greatest classical plays in a three-year venture with Kevin Spacey's Old Vic in London and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. The move is an artistic and diplomatic coup for Spacey, whose critics have wanted him to concentrate on presenting the major plays for which the Old Vic theatre was once famed.
It reunites him with Mendes, whose 1999 screen debut American Beauty won numerous awards, including best actor for Spacey.
And it should thrill British audiences by giving Stephen Dillane, a fine Hamlet for Peter Hall in 1994, a second stab at the role next year. Simon Russell Beale is lined up to star in 2009.
The collaborators will present a double-bill of classic works up until at least 2010, in Brooklyn, at the Old Vic and in at least one other international venue, starting next year in the Piccolo Teatro, Milan.
Announcing the venture from New York yesterday, Mendes said he was looking forward to returning to the stage. "Weirdly, it will have been exactly five years since I directed something in London which was never my intention," he said.
But he and his wife, the actress Kate Winslet, had wanted to spend time with their children, so he had done only one film, Jarhead, and one play, The Vertical Hour by David Hare in New York, since departing the Donmar in 2003.
The idea of an international collaboration had been in the air since then. When his final productions, Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night transferred to BAM, Joseph Melillo, its executive producer, suggested Men-des should form a company to present classical works. At the same time, Spacey, who became artistic director of the Old Vic in 2003, was talking to Mendes about working there.
Mendes joked: "I've been relishing the last four years because before that it was always about me trying to persuade Kevin. Then suddenly the boot was on the other foot so I was stringing it out for as long as I could and finally I gave in. …