By David W Rintels
The Old Vic Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
This is Kevin Spacey's swansong at the Old Vic and it showcases what makes the man so special. During his twelve–year reign in Waterloo he's transformed a shaky 'receiving house' into a theatrical powerhouse that acts as a magnet for star talent in (mostly) well–chosen programmes.
This play, originally staged on Broadway in 1974 with Henry Fonda, is a one–man show that any actor would relish, packed as it is with bravura speeches. Spacey premiered this production last May at the Old Vic and its 22 performances created a box–office frenzy. On top of his past triumphs, Spacey is now basking in the wider glory of his hit show House of Cards, which he created and stars in for Netflix. Like Olivier before him, the man is a one–man culture industry.
Seduction is the key here. He entrances us from the very outset, even if he starts under a huge office desk fixing a drawer. The monologues, rather perfunctorily sewn together by Rintels, give us a rundown of the greatest hits in the career of the legendary crusading defence lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857–1938). Spacey uses photos and mementos drawn from storage boxes to recount the tales and he avails of every opportunity provided by Thea Sharrock's in–the–round staging, to connect with audience members by having them read or sitting among them or addressing them face–to–face discussing the art of jury selection. For Spacey it gives him an opportunity to relish getting up close and for us it's a chance to see the glint in the eye of an actor at the top of his game. (One hopes, by the way, that Matthew Warchus, who takes over from Spacey, will retain the theatre–in–the–round as it has been a huge improvement.)
Actors can't go wrong playing lawyers, and Darrow won over his juries, usually with the odds totally stacked against him, by using a thespian's mixture of charm, guile and bullying. Darrow fashioned what was to become an American archetype – the lawyer for the little guy – who spoke with emotional conviction about the nobility of man and the threats to liberty posed by wealth and power. It set a template for so many screen lawyers to follow.
Darrow is perhaps best remembered from his portrayal by Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind, when he defended the teaching of the theory of evolution in Tennessee schools in the 1920s, in the notorious Scopes 'Monkey' Trial. Long before that showdown, however, he had made his name and shaped legal history by defending striking railway employees and miners against the excesses of the Robber Barons. He also helped those persecuted in 'Red scares' as well as the labor activists charged with bombing the then fiercely anti–union Los Angeles Times.
Darrow was also ahead of his time in defending numerous wrongly accused African Americans facing death row. One particularly poignant case was of a family, on trumped up charges, who had all been driven from their home by a mob for daring to move into a white neighbourhood.
Spacey, a great raconteur, is in his element here and his achievement is to make this litany of labour and race relations' cases come alive, particularly some of the great closing arguments, such as the one he made at the Leopold and Loeb trial. This piece is a salutary reminder of the importance of Darrow and what he stood for and it's a fittingly noble end to Spacey's tenure at the Old Vic.