'Clarence Darrow' returns to the Old Vic from March 3 2015 for six weeks. This review is of the show's 2014 run.
Gracing the stage of his own theatre again after a yawning three-year absence, Kevin Spacey could scarcely have made a more crowdpleasing comeback if he’d bought everyone in the audience a ‘House of Cards’ box set and a BMW.
It would be an exaggeration to describe David W Rintels’s 1974 monologue, culled from the wit and wisdom of the eponymous US civil liberties lawyer, as a hagiography. After all, Clarence Darrow did say most of this stuff, and the play is less about him and more about what he stood for: decency, tolerance, respect for others – all that good stuff.
Immortalised in the play and film ‘Inherit the Wind’ (a role Spacey played here in 2009), Darrow was one of the greatest orators in American history, a man of deep principle, a tremendously successful champion of the underdog, and a pretty funny guy to boot.
‘Clarence Darrow’, then, is the equivalent of the rousing, tide-turning speech at the end of a great courtroom drama the entire way through, as Darrow, alone in his untidy office, gives us the edited highlights of his career from late nineteenth-century labour lawyer to twentieth-century civil liberties titan. It ends with his electrifying attack on the death penalty at the summation of the 1924 Leopold and Loeb trial, which is probably one of the best things an actual human being has ever said in actual real life.
Most actors could get a round of applause with this stuff, given a modicum of conviction and a friendly crowd. But this is Kevin bloody Spacey we’re talking about, and in Thea Sharrock’s production he tackles it with such seismic energy that he might as well be a different species to the rest of us.
The first five minutes pass in silence; there’s a bit of folksy physical business as Darrow potters about his office, half-heartedly trying to rationalise his teetering piles of files, giving the audience a wry look over. Then the avalanche starts, as Spacey finally opens his mouth, launching into Darrow’s first speech at full tilt and never letting up. There are points when you wonder where the hell he could possibly go next, such is the force of delivery and raspy, throaty passion in his voice. Yet it doesn’t become numbingly bombastic; it’s incredibly effective. Under the mannered roaring there is tenderness in his voice, fear too, fear for humanity because these cases came to trial, fear for his clients if they don’t get off. Spacey makes sure the stakes always seem high.
Spacey has said that this won’t be his final role before stepping down as Old Vic boss next year, and I’m glad of that because for all the brilliance of the performance, ‘Clarence Darrow’ is an uncomplicated play and an easy win. Nevertheless, this is a pure and powerful barnstormer of an evening, one that leaves you in awe of both the men on stage.