Clarence Darrow at The Old Vic
The lights go up, the stage is empty. A series of grunts and crashes introduces Clarence Darrow, the great American lawyer and civil rights defender, lying with his legs in the air beneath his desk. A couple of anxious minutes go by, with Kevin Spacey pottering around the stage (dressed up like the office of Atticus Finch) before collapsing into his chair. More time transpires while Spacey looks around the room, as if greeting each person in the packed out Old Vic individually. A couple of nervous giggles leak out and just like that, the audience is in the palm of his hand, remaining there until the very end.
The poignancy of the evening is palpable, this being Spacey’s final performance as creative director of the Old Vic since he took over 12 years ago. Fitting then, perhaps, that he takes centre stage in this one-man play, charting the life and work of an eloquent country lawyer who “didn’t bribe jurors, he frightened them to death”. The intimacy created by staging the play in the round certainly reproduces a bit of that terror, with Spacey’s full-bodied performance barely contained by the wooden stage. Instead, the audience becomes implicit in Darrow’s recreation of famous trials, as well as intimate scenes involving his first wife.
Impassioned and at times vitriolic, Darrow is presented as a staunch defender of left-leaning politics in a recognisably ignorant society. Racial harmony, the eight-hour day and the end of the death penalty are all argued for over the course of the play, and it’s hard not to leave the theatre considering these morals against our own society. Darrow is shown to be tired of the world that he’s been fighting (or teaching) for so long. Ultimately, there’s an understandable amount of pride in Darrow that can’t be criticised. Of all the 102 men he defended, Spacey tells us, not one was hanged.
The script is one that was first staged 40 years ago, with Henry Fonda in the role. Far from dusty however, the words are brought to life by Spacey’s exhilarated movement and delivery; jokes land on cue, moments of anguish are perfectly realised. After giving everything he has for almost two hours, the play comes to its end. The time has flown by. The next time Spacey returns to the London stage it will be as a guest, but one we’ll be more than happy to have.
Clarence Darrow is on at The Old Vic until 15th June 2015, for further information visit here.