Kevin Spacey's reign at the Old Vic has swung wildly between scintillating hits and complete turkeys; this production, which I saw in preview, is a gold-plated hit. It's a bold choice of play which without Trevor Nunn as director might have misfired, but every element works beautifully and Spacey himself gives a performance to treasure. (Readers of this blog with short attention spans who want to go back to Twittering can leave at this point)
There's something hugely entertaining about going to see a courtroom drama and passing newspaper billboards on the way to the theatre announcing that the attorney-general Lady Scotland turns out to have broken the law, has paid a £5000 fine for employing an illegal immigrant as her cleaner and still refuses to resign. You really couldn't make it up. The law sometimes seems to be there not to keep us in order but merely to entertain; real life trials are almost always better than the ones that playwrights invent. But this American courtroom drama, written in the mid-1950s by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, was based quite closely on a real story -- the trial in Tennessee in 1924 of a schoolteacher for teaching evolution. What became known as the 'monkey trial' of John Scopes became a three-ring circus long before O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson; photographs from inside the courtroom brought it to a national audience and it was even broadcast on live radio. This play became a famous film in 1960 starring Spencer Tracy as defence lawyer Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow) but had only a short stage production in London before being forgotten on this side of the Atlantic. Great credit to Trevor Nunn and Kevin Spacey for taking the risk of reviving it for this year's Darwin anniversary. Unlike most things from the Eisenhower era, it comes up smelling fresh as a daisy. It's well-constructed, well-designed in an old-fashioned way and rolls along the freeway like a vintage 1955 chromium-plated Cadillac, showing no signs of rust. The authors understood that the Scopes trial wasn't just about the rival truths of science and religion but about the right to free thought and the conflict between small-town American values and the wider world. The probable reason this play hasn't been revived before is that it demands a huge cast of around 30 and another 20 or so non-speaking extras. That rules it out for almost anyone except the National Theatre, but somehow Spacey's Old Vic has cajoled enough money out of sponsors and donors to make it possible.
Trevor Nunn has no equals as a director when it comes to moving around a big cast on a big stage; there's just nobody else who can use a large ensemble the way he can. The stage at the Old Vic isn't all that wide but it's very deep, and I think this is a play where the view from the stalls is probably not as good as from higher up. I saw the play from the grand circle but a friend who was down below said there was 'too much going on'. The original 'monkey trial' pitted Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan as prosecutor. Bryan was a three-times presidential candidate for the Democrats and one of the most admired men in America -- not just a reactionary bigot but a progressive on many issues. In the play he is thinly disguised as Matthew Harrison Brady. David Troughton plays Brady as something of a buffoon, which jars with the fact that his opposite number Drummond clearly respects him and happily acknowledges that he once supported him for president. That aside, Troughton is excellent. Spacey, however, is breathtakingly good as Drummond. When this grey-haired man in his mid-sixties first slouches on stage, round-shouldered and with a slight stoop, it's hard to believe this is the same protean actor who hopped around the Old Vic a couple of years ago as a youthful Richard II. I had to get my binoculars out to make sure that the man in the grey wig really was Spacey. But it was. Using sardonic humour to puncture Brady's pomposity, Drummond loses the case but wins the argument. At the end he picks up the Bible and the Origin of Species, weighs one in each hand and seems to find them equal, making the point that religious belief and scientific fact aren't mutually exclusive. There are several other standout performances, including Sonya Cassidy as the defendant's girlfriend Rachel Brown and Mark Dexter as the sharp-tongued journalist from Baltimore E K Hornbeck (based on H L Mencken), who makes the most of the play's best lines. 'I may be rancid butter, but I'm on your side of the bread,' Hornbeck says to Rachel Brown.
It was a fairly warm autumn evening in the grand circle at the Old Vic but as in the original trial, the actors convincingly struggled with 100F heat on stage; it felt hot just looking at them sweltering in the makeshift courtroom, which is another way of saying Trevor Nunn, his designer Rob Howell and the rest of the production team have got everything just right. Even the monkey who appears in the street scenes outside the courthouse plays his part to perfection. Preview-schmeview. Now he's got this production into tip-top shape, perhaps Trevor Nunn might like to stroll up Waterloo Road to the National and give Deborah Warner a hand with her apparently very troubled production of Mother Courage?