A standing ovation at the end of a theatre performance doesn't happen that often, and when it does it often seems forced and ritualistic, as if the audience has been asked to stand by some invisible vicar at the end of a sermon.
Not this time.
I have been a theatregoer for about five decades but I can't ever recall an audience jumping to its feet in a spontaneous single movement the way they did tonight at the end of Kevin Spacey's final appearance in the theatre he has run as artistic director for the past 11 years, the Old Vic.
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Spacey on the Old Vic stage before to be told that his performance as the famous trial lawyer Clarence Darrow is sensational. I've been bedazzled by him in Richard II, Richard III, A Moon for the Misbegotten and in two or three other roles at the Old Vic which were less memorable until he made them his own. He's stepping down and handing over to Matthew Warchus after restoring the Old Vic to its rightful place as one of London's most exciting theatres.
This is some swansong. As Spacey explains in the programme, it is his third shot at playing Darrow, a man he admires for his courage, dignity, intelligence and logic, and his willingness to accept cases nobody else would take. 'He often managed to convince judges and jurors to change their view, shift their prejudice and opt for a humane punishment on behalf of those he defended.' In 1991 he played him in a U.S. television film, and again on the Old Vic stage in 2009 in Trevor Nunn's production of Inherit the Wind. This time the script is a 1970s Broadway play by David W Rintels, which originally starred Henry Fonda. It's a one-man show which glosses over some of Darrow's character flaws but stops short of outright hagiography. The great trial lawyer acts out his life in a long monologue to the audience, addressing us as if we are a jury. So it's naturally a case for the defence, not a judge's summing up with all the warts left in.
Spacey is well served by director Thea Sharrock, who keeps him busy in the first half of the play poking around in a series of cardboard boxes, sorting out papers, fishing out old photographs and poking about in books. Sharrock is one of my favourite directors, and this production is likely to further polish her already sky-high reputation. Spacey fiddles with his glasses, his jacket and a series of other props, jabbing the air with his fists and mesmerising the audience the way Darrow did the jury.
Darrow tells the story of his humble beginnings as the son of free-thinking, book-reading tradespeople in the rural Midwest, his move to Chicago and his career defending the weak and the poor against injustice, fighting on behalf of labour unions against a court system heavily biased towards the rich and powerful.
There's a strong contemporary message in this play, and it should be compulsory viewing for Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, who has the legal profession in his sights. For a U.S. audience, the argument over the death penalty remains acute, while on this side of the Atlantic Darrow's opposition to racism and miscarriages of justice probably resonates more strongly. But this production is so inspiring in its vision of law and justice and humanity, and in its sheer dramatic power, that it should be compulsory viewing for everbody.
I can't think of a better textbook example of how to write and stage a one-man show in the round (the Old Vic has been transformed for most of 2014 into a different kind of space). But the problem is that there are only going to be about 20 performances between now and mid-June, and although a handful of day seats are available, the run is sold out.
This is a real tragedy. I can't think of any production with greater potential for showing a nationwide audience not only the power of justice but the power of theatre. Now that the BBC is trying to overcome two decades of neglecting live theatre as an art form, its director-general Tony Hall should crawl on his knees to the Old Vic and bang on Kevin Spacey's dressing room door until he wins the right to film this production for a wider public.
You've got two weeks, Tony.
Just do it.