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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
CLARENCE DARROW
at the Old Vic

PUBLIC DEFENDER
By KATE BASSETT


This is Kevin Spacey's farewell performance as the artistic director of the Old Vic. He hands over to Matthew Warchus in 2015. At the helm for a decade, Spacey (now 52) has seen this West End venue riding impressively high for most of that time. The Hollywood star also showed staying power early on, not abandoning ship when some ill-judged programming rendered the waters critically choppy. The celebrated American lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) was, likewise, a determined fighter, and Spacey portrays him with enormous vigor in this barnstormer of a one-man biodrama by David W. Rintels
 
For sure, Spacey’s Darrow is getting on in years and is just pottering at the start of Thea Sharrock’s production. In his cluttered, lamp-lit office, he’s packing old files into boxes, as if preparing for retirement. He’s got a hobble and a stoop (the impression of agedness being aided by what looks like a spine-stiffening corset, just visible under the actor’s shirt and suspenders). But the man somehow still has the air of a relaxed, earthy swaggerer. 
 
When he spots the audience, a gleam appears in his eye and he’s off – reminiscing and passionately reliving the major courtroom dramas of his career. With the Old Vic currently configured as an in-the-round auditorium, Spacey is startlingly close-up if you’re in the stalls. Indeed, he often works the front row and darts up the main aisle, being keen to get everyone on his side like a jury.  

He relays how he was raised in Ohio by freethinking parents who helped slaves to escape from bondage. Then he runs (not always chronologically) through the key cases where he defended society's underdogs and radically crusaded for civil rights, equality and judicious mercy. The highlights include his battles on behalf of striking coalminers and railroad workers; the famous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial where he championed a teacher for disseminating Darwin’s theory of evolution, in the face of creationists; and the polemical Leopold and Loeb murder case where he argued against the death sentence. Most moving are the descriptions of his repeated battles in support of black defendants who faced potentially prejudiced charges. Those cases strikingly chime with the 1930s Alabama trials dramatized in the nearby Young Vic’s recent production of The Scottsboro Boys.
 
Spacey is manifestly fascinated by Darrow, having played him in a 1991 PBS film and the Old Vic's 2009 revival of Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized portrayal of the Monkey Trial. It must be said, Rintels’ script (from 1974) is little short of hagiography. It mentions but avoids investigating Darrow’s less admirable side, especially the ditching his first wife in the name of "freedom." Spacey also has to work hard to animate 90 minutes, conducting imaginary dialogues with empty chairs and waving illustrative photographs of Darrow’s clients. Thus, this tour de force risks feeling forced. Yet Spacey pulls off the showmanship, combining dynamism with consummate, often droll timing. And ultimately Darrow is powerfully inspiring, declaring, "The world doesn’t change without a struggle."
 
 
Kate Bassett is a theatre critic for The Times of London.

 


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