Kevin Spacey returns as Clarence Darrow at The Old Vic (2014)

Since he became Artistic Director of The Old Vic in 2004 Kevin Spacey has continued to take to the stage of his theatre and last night I went to see his latest production – David W Rintel’s play, Clarence Darrow, about the famous American civil rights lawyer, directed by Thea Sharrock.

Clarence Darrow is a role Spacey is rather familiar with already, having played the role in the 1991 television film Darrow for American channel PBS and again on stage at the Old Vic in 2009 in the superb Inherit The Wind (in which Darrow is known as Henry Drummond). The latter was in fact my first trip to The Old Vic. I loved Inherit The Wind, not just for Spacey’s and the other superb performances (including David Troughton), but also due to the incredible story it told. I was therefore thrilled to hear Mr. Spacey was revisiting Mr. Darrow before his time at the theatre was over. Tickets sold rapidly for this short three-week run (slotted in to Mr. Spacey’s schedule before he films series three of the brilliant House of Cards) so I felt lucky to have managed to secure one at all.

The play itself is based on the book Clarence Darrow for the Defense by Irving Stone and is a one man affair, in which Darrow reflects on his career, from his beginnings in the law, his first successes with the Labour movement, through darker periods and his more famous cases, including the Scopes “Monkey” case (around which Inherit The Wind is based). However, despite there being only one person on stage, the play is written so that through his reflections, Darrow brings to life other characters – as if going back in time, he examines and cross examines witnesses and has conversations with, for example, his wife, in a way that, although we don’t hear the other half of the dialogue, we hear it in our minds. Aided by timely sound cues, whether of a jeering crowd or gunshots, this is very effective and adds an additional dimension to the play, meaning what could have been a fairly dry monologue-style play becomes something much more engaging.

Darrow is a key figure in American legal history and arguably the greatest trail lawyer of the 20th century. His brilliance and passion in court and his career-long battle against the death penalty (over 50 years he saved 102 people from the death penalty) set him apart. Added to this is his role in three of America’s most famous trials of the 1920s (the Leopold and Loeb murder trial, the Scopes “Monkey” case and the Ossian Sweet trial, all of which are covered in Clarence Darrow). In light of his achievements in defending the weak and endeavouring to make mankind see that death is never the answer no matter the crime, it is hard not to admire him. It was clear last night just how much Kevin Spacey admires him through his superb performance.

In its current configuration as a theatre in the round, this play finds the ideal setting. The stage is a small circular space within which sits Darrow’s study/office. Boxes and files are everywhere and throughout the show, Spacey roams about the place, shifting a box here and there. As he moves around, Spacey gives us a true insight into this extraordinary man. We see his anger at the treatment of miners working 14-hour days with only a potato to nourish them, we hear his wit and charisma as he recalls moments in court in front of juries whom he desperately persuaded to see crime and its punishments differently and we see his despair at his own struggles, most notably when falsely accused of bribery. Spacey handles the content of the play brilliantly and I can’t think of many actors who could so easily capture the attention of a theatre in such a way. Throughout the two 45 minute acts, he is witty, passionate and moving, delivering some of Darrow’s most famous courtroom speeches with emotional depth and resonance. He also engages with the audience, addressing them at times as if the jury and clearly reveled in the atmosphere and engagement (one woman’s hand –raising request to join his jury at one point was met with a “I’ll come to you later” response).

Interestingly he is far less made up here than he was for Inherit the Wind (at which time Darrow was in his mid 60s and Spacey was suitably aged), but in light of the style of the play it didn’t matter to me. This is arguably the Darrow of Darrow’s own mind and therefore he could reasonably be from any time in his life in terms of appearance.

An older image of Darrow from Spacey in Inherit The Wind (2009), alongside David Troughton

 

This style of production and play may not necessarily appeal to everyone but I certainly enjoyed Clarence Darrow. It was insightful and thought provoking, whilst still containing moments of humour and wit (Darrow clearly had a quick wit to go with his sharp mind). Perhaps in lesser hands it wouldn’t work as well, but with Spacey in the role, it’s an impressive display by, in my opinion, a superb actor. Although I think theatre in the round is tough in terms of engaging with everyone (for the most part, all the big emotional speeches are delivered facing forward, which would no doubt have been frustrating for those seated on the stage side), I loved this intimate setting. It felt appropriate for such a play and in my view allowed the audience to be drawn to Darrow much more effectively. There was also something lovely about seeing Kevin Spacey, who has unquestionably transformed The Old Vic over the last ten years, sitting in a comfy chair at the centre of an audience hanging on his every word. To be able to remember so much dialogue and single-handedly carry a production is quite an achievement and I am certainly glad I was able to see it. I only hope we see Mr. Spacey on what has become his stage once more before his time as Artistic Director ends next year.

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