After a six-year absence, former Donmar Warehouse artistic director Sam Mendes will return to the London stage next year to direct Stephen Dillane in Hamlet and The Tempest, which will run at the Old Vic from May to June 2008. The productions are part of a three-year transatlantic venture forged between Mendes, the Old Vic and New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), where the productions will originate in January.

As part of the new Bridge Project, each year a single company of leading British and American actors will be assembled to perform a double bill of classic works at BAM and the Old Vic, as well as at least one other theatre internationally. Between its dates in New York and London next year, Hamlet and The Tempest will have a month-long residency at the Piccolo Theatre in Milan.

Following the inaugural double bill (in which Dillane will play Hamlet and Prospero, respectively), Mendes will direct The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard in 2009, starring Simon Russell Beale as Leontes in the Shakespeare and Lopakhin in the Chekhov. A third pairing of plays for 2010 is still to be confirmed.

According to press materials, the Bridge Project “places the exchange of ideas, talents and creativity between London and New York at the heart of the process, and is borne out of Sam Mendes, Joseph V Melillo (executive producer of BAM since 1999) and Kevin Spacey’s (who has been running the Old Vic since 2004) shared desire to produce large-scale, classical theatre for international audiences.”

The seeds were first sown from Mendes’ farewell Donmar Warehouse double bill of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, with a company led by Simon Russell Beale, which transferred to BAM for nine weeks in spring 2003 after their sell-out autumn 2002 season in London. Amongst the productions’ many accolades were two Oliviers (including Best Director for Mendes) and two of New York’s Obie Awards (one for Russell Beale’s performance in I>Uncle Vanya).

Mendes began to have similar discussions about possible projects with Kevin Spacey, after he directed the Hollywood actor in the 1999 film American Beauty, which nabbed five Academy Awards, including Best Director for Mendes and Best Actor for Spacey.

Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya were Mendes’ last London stage productions. During his decade at the Donmar, his other credits there included Assassins, Cabaret, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Glass Menagerie, True West, The Real Thing, Take Me Out and The Blue Room, many of which also transferred to New York. Since leaving the Donmar, he has directed Gypsy and the world premiere of David Hare’s The Vertical Hour on Broadway, and the films Road to Perdition and Jarhead, and has also set up Neal Street Productions, the transatlantic film and theatre company, with his long-term producing partner Caro Newling.

Commenting on the inaugural 2007 double bill, Mendes said today: “I’m delighted to have the opportunity of directing these two wonderful plays simultaneously. Hamlet and The Tempest, although written 13 years apart, are plays in which Shakespeare deals with a similar obsession: in both, the central character is bent on revenge. But they are also plays which explore the complex relationship between parents and children, masters and subjects. By presenting these two plays and their common ideas side by side we will, I hope, be able to begin a fascinating process of discovery, in which each plays casts a fresh light on the other. Since our collaboration on The Real Thing at the Donmar in 1999, I’ve been looking forward to working with the extraordinary Stephen Dillane again, and I’m thrilled that he’ll be leading a transatlantic company of exceptional talent. I’m also delighted to be working with two of the greatest theatres in the world, and continuing my relationship with their artistic directors, Joe Melillo and Kevin Spacey. And of course I’m looking forward to reuniting with my friend and collaborator, Simon Russell Beale (currently in the West End playing King Arthur in Spamalot), in 2009, for what will be our seventh Shakespeare production together.”

Kevin Spacey - who’s on Broadway this spring in the Old Vic production of A Moon for the Misbegotten, for which he won this year’s Whatsonstage.com Award for Best Actor - commented: “I couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of this unique partnership. It has been my hope since I became artistic director of the Old Vic that the work we do in London should have an international life, and particularly, a presence in New York.”

The Old Vic has recently shared two of Propeller Theatre’s all-male productions of The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night with BAM. Joseph Melillo added: “It’s a privilege to develop a new partnership with Kevin Spacey and the Old Vic, and I’m particularly pleased that it was borne out of our existing relationship with Sam Mendes and Caro Newling. This unique, three-year collaboration promises to bring a wealth of resonant theatre productions to New York City, London and international stages.” Rehearsals for Hamlet and The Tempest begin in New York in October 2007.

- by Terri Paddock