sun 21/07/2024

Inherit the Wind, Old Vic | reviews, news & interviews

Inherit the Wind, Old Vic

Inherit the Wind, Old Vic

Trevor Nunn directs Spacey and Troughton in a superb revival of the Creationists v Darwinists classic

As anyone who has ever had the misfortune to sit through a real court case knows, they can be deadly dull; but by golly when playwrights get their hands on them they usually become riveting. And so it proves here in Trevor Nunn’s pacy, funny and moving production of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee’s 1955 play.

Inherit the Wind is based on the 1925 Monkey Trial in Tennessee, when teacher John Scopes was charged with breaking a law prohibiting the teaching of evolutionary theory in the state’s schools. The great liberal thinker Clarence Darrow was Scopes’s defence lawyer and fundamentalist politician William Jennings Bryan the prosecutor.

If the play was a modern parable (written as it was during the McCarthy trials), it is one again - as 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his monumental work On the Origin of Species (and a Charles Darwin biopic, Creation, is on general release), and yet about 40 per cent of Americans reject Darwinian theories while Creationism has returned to the syllabus in some British schools. Essentially, though, it is a play about freedom of expression, of thought and of speech, and a celebration of humans’ unique intellectual curiosity.

Lawrence and Lee fictionalised the trial, so Darrow becomes Henry Drummond, Bryan evolves (sorry) into Matthew Harrison Brady and H L Mencken morphs into E K Hornbeck, while the teacher is now Bertram Cates. But the play uses much that did happen - the trial really did take place in searing Southern heat, Darrow really did put Bryan on the stand, and the brilliant essayist Mencken did indeed write daily reports on the proceedings.

No role lets an actor act more than that of a lawyer - all those rhetorical devices and grandstanding physical ticks - but Kevin Spacey resists the urge to showboat and reins himself in beautifully as the stooped, white-haired Drummond. He does get the best lines, though - when the sweating, pompous Brady says in all seriousness the world was created at 9.30am on 23 October 4004BC, Drummond comes back quick as a flash: “Is that Eastern Standard Time?’’

But in acting terms, this is an even fight. David Troughton manages to portray Brady’s faith in the Bible’s authenticity without condescension and gives him a vulnerability beneath the politician’s egotistical bluster. The closing scene of the first half, when he expresses regret that the friendship the two attorneys once shared has now gone, is genuinely moving.

The striking design, with false perspectives and clever sliding sets, is by Rob Howell and lighting is by Howard Harrison; together they provide a visual treat. Nunn directs the huge (40-plus) cast with a light and deft touch and I’ll even forgive him the banjo music he inexplicably slips in among the pleasing hymns that link scenes. Ken Bones and Sonya Cassidy give solid support as the preacher and his daughter, and Sam Phillips invests the underwritten Cates with a touching combination of timidity and intellectual fortitude.

Despite the monster cast, Inherit the Wind is often viewed almost as a two-hander; Troughton and Spacey are on top form but their thunder is almost stolen by a superb, pitch-perfect performance by Mark Dexter as the sneering, waspish Mencken, nostrils almost visibly flaring as a prissy city boy having to rough it among rednecks.

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