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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
INHERIT THE WIND
at The Old Vic

APE AND ESSENCE
By JOHN NATHAN

  David Troughton, Branwell Donaghey, and Kevin Spacey

With a cast of 29—or 30 if you include the organ grinder's monkey—it's no surprise that it's been over 50 years since Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's famous (in America) play was last seen in London.
 
But although Trevor Nunn's production is impressive—this is his second collaboration with Kevin Spacey—it reveals that cost and scale are not the only reasons why this courtroom drama, which is based on the 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial," in which a Tennessee teacher was prosecuted for teaching evolution, gets a rare airing.
 
For although Nunn expertly choreographs the human and simian traffic, and however relevant the arguments at the play's core may be, he cannot hide the creaking datedness of Lawrence and Lee's play.
 
It is set in the Tennessee town of Hillsboro—wittily described by Mark Dexter's acidic, visiting journalist E.K. Hornbeck as the "buckle of the Bible Belt"—a place populated by the kind of off-the-shelf characters who should be left to gather dust as bookends.
 
There is a fire and brimstone preacher (played by Ken Bones), his delicate daughter Rachel (Sonya Cassidy) who is so utterly innocent she makes the Wizard of Oz's Dorothy look like a femme fatale, the aforementioned journalist, who is naturally dripping with cynicism, and a whole hick town's worth of straw-chewing, simple minded plebs who fear God almost as much as evidence that he does not exist.
 
This earth shattering heretical idea arrived before the action starts when schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Sam Phillips) broke a crass local law by speaking to his pupils of evolution. Or as David Troughton's creationist prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady likes to call it, "evil-ution".
 
It is no coincidence that Troughton's puffed-up Brady and Spacey's fearless defense attorney Henry Drummond are by far the play's most vividly drawn characters. They are after all based on the equally vivid William Bryan and Clarence Darrow who clashed in court over the same issues in 1925.
 
But however familiar the arguments, lest I come across as cynical a hack as Hornbeck, let me admit to being an absolute sucker for passionately fought courtroom drama. And in this case, the prospect of two legal titans played by such huge acting talents is irresistible, as is the moment when Spacey's Drummond calls Troughton's Brady to the witness box.
 
With wavy white hair and the gait of an arthritic pensioner, Spacey has aged a good twenty years for this role. Drummond's body may no longer keep appointments made by his brain, but his mind is as agile as ever and he shrugs off Brady's biblical and political authority with casual irreverence, especially when he questions his rival's blind faith in the Bible and all that modest "begetting" that goes on in the good book.
 
"I mean, did people 'begat' in those days about the same way they get themselves 'begat' today?" Drummond asks his only witness. Goaded, Troughton's powerful Brady indignantly cricks his neck, juts his jaw and eventually dissolves under the strain of the stifling summer heat and his foe's insolence. It is a clash that alone is worth the price of a ticket.
 
The last time Nunn directed a production with "Wind" in the title it didn't go so well. In fact, Gone With the Wind was last year's most conspicuous West End turkey—since forgiven if not forgotten thanks to Nunn's beautiful revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music.
 
Here, the Les Miserable director uses his unequalled skills for directing large-scale works by almost turning Lawrence and Lee's play into a musical. Scenes are separated with stirring hymns. But this is an evening about acting not singing. And like many an-evening at the Old Vic with Spacey in the cast, you leave with the belief that, whatever the merits of t

 


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