After a year’s postponement, the inaugural season of the Bridge Project – the three-year transatlantic venture forged between Sam Mendes, the Old Vic and New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) – will launch in January, when the first two productions, The Winter’s Tale and Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in a new version by Tom Stoppard, will open in New York ahead of international dates and a summer 2009 season at the Old Vic.

Former Donmar Warehouse artistic director Sam Mendes will direct a stellar, Anglo-American company for the cross-cast productions. Simon Russell Beale - who has been attached since the project’s inception to play Leontes in The Winter’s Tale and Lopakhin in The Cherry Orchard - will be joined by fellow Brits Sinead Cusack (currently on Broadway in Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll) as Paulina/Madame Ranevskaya and Rebecca Hall as Hermione/Varya (See The Goss, 27 Mar 2008).

The company’s US contingent will be led by Broadway alumni Ethan Hawke (pictured) as Autolycus/Trofimov, Josh Hamilton as Polixenes/Yasha and Richard Easton as Old Shepherd & Time/Firs, all three of whom appeared in the multi award-winning Broadway staging of Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia trilogy. Hawke and Hamilton also co-founded Malaparte Theatre Company, though Hawke is best known for his many films including Dead Poets’ Society, Alive, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Great Expectations, Reality Bites and Training Day, for which he was Oscar nominated.

Rehearsals begin in October in New York. The Winter’s Tale and The Cherry Orchard run at BAM from January to March 2009 then embark on an international tour to Singapore, New Zealand, Spain and Germany before concluding at the Old Vic for a season (exact dates tbc) from May to August 2009. The Bridge Project was originally due to launch at the start of this year with Mendes directing Stephen Dillane in Hamlet and The Tempest, but those productions were called off when Dillane withdrew due to family illness (See News, 20 Jul 2007). A 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’ 2002 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 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 Bridge Project’s 2009 double bill today, Mendes said: I’m delighted to be working on the The Cherry Orchard and The Winter’s Tale simultaneously… I’m particularly looking forward to reuniting with my friend and collaborator Simon Russell Beale for what will be our seventh Shakespeare production together and thrilled that he will be leading a transatltantic company of exceptional talent.”

Kevin Spacey said that he “couldn’t be happier” to bring the productions to the Old Vic, adding: “The Old Vic stage calls for great acting and great writing. With Tom Stoppard’s new version of The Cherry Orchard and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale played in rep by this magnificent cast, Old Vic audiences have a great deal to be excited about for 2009.”

- by Terri Paddock