I Know Kevin's the Right Man; Spacey's Rocky Start at the Old Vic Has Not Shaken Sally Greene, the Impresario Who Brought Him to London

The Evening Standard (London, England), February 18, 2005 | Go to article overview

I Know Kevin's the Right Man; Spacey's Rocky Start at the Old Vic Has Not Shaken Sally Greene, the Impresario Who Brought Him to London


Byline: FIONA MADDOCKS

SALLY Greene, tenacious saviour of the Old Vic, has three topics which are offlimits: her children, her age and her health.

Everything else - and there's no shortage - is fair game. She has just taken over Ronnie Scott's, is producing the Billy Elliot musical (with music by her friend Elton John) and the Vagina Monologues with Sharon Osbourne. She owns the Criterion and Richmond theatres, is building a new small auditorium in Islington and is engaged with countless charities, including one run by another chum, Hillary Clinton.

First, the no-go areas. Obligingly she volunteers answers to the questions she has just insisted must not be asked. She and her husband, property tycoon Robert Bourne, high profile donors to the Labour Party, have two children: Lily, 17, and Ben, 14.

She refers to them frequently and nothing dark or mysterious emerges.

As for her age: "I want to be in this job a long time and if I were a man you wouldn't ask." So she settles, borrowing a line from Mame, on " somewhere between 40 and death". I'll settle, based on her career, for " second half of forties".

The morning we met, following rumours about a recent "life-threatening illness", a newspaper had asked her to confirm that she had cancer. "I said I wouldn't, because I don't." For the record, she had acute appendicitis, which turned into potentially fatal peritonitis. She has recovered, but it has taken six months and left her with "a new focus, and a determination to succeed - especially with the Old Vic".

When Greene acquired the venerable theatre six years ago it was, she says, "bleak and dark". Peter Hall, and before him Jonathan Miller, had abandoned attempts to revitalise it.

Over four years she raised funds, persuaded Kevin Spacey to divert from a Hollywood career and take over as artistic director, and filled the board with power players whom she cajoled with party-giving and flirtatious persuasion, which made her a gossipcolumn favourite. The building was spruced up. Hamlet, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring 23-year-old Ben Whishaw, was admired.

But now, halfway through its first full Spacey season, with Cloaca and National Anthems receiving poor reviews, impatience is growing.

Spacey is under attack. Does he know what he's doing? Should he both act and direct?

Shouldn't he go? Even the Old Vic itself, stranded in a no man's land south of Waterloo Bridge, is deemed geog r a p h i c a l l y remote. Never mind the shades of Lilian Baylis, Laurence Olivier, Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft.

Aren't its glory days irretrievable?

Greene doesn't deal in self-doubt.

"This is a great time for London theatre. We're doing 80 to 90 per cent business at the box office.

We're up for four Oliviers on Sunday. This year we've broken even, which is fantastic. We've already done [pounds sterling]70,000 advance booking on the Philadelphia Story, which doesn't open until May.

We've got more potential sponsors lined up. We make it worth their while.

We flew 20 to the Oscars."

As an aside, she notes that the Reduced Shakespeare Company, a fixture at her Criterion Theatre, is closing after nine years but she's relieved since, she suggests, everyone's now bored stiff with it.

The Old Vic gets no public funding.

"The building's a mess. There's a hole in the roof that was never properly repaired after Second World War bomb damage. We're applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund. The great thing is it's a listed building. It has to be a theatre. No one can suddenly turn it into a casino."

With Elton John chairing the board, Nicholas Hytner's mother, Joyce, masterminding fundraising, and dressing rooms designed by Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney, the Old Vic isn't short of glamour. …

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