In his final role as Director of the Old Vic, Kevin Spacey reassumes the character of Clarence Darrow, providing a brilliant account of the Ohio-born civil-liberties lawyer who fought many cases on the behalf of those whose voices were being censored and suppressed. His career spanned an incredible 50 years at the bar, covering the holy trinity of controversy in his time: race, religion and politics.
The one-man play, written by David W. Rintels, gives a sober reflection of both sides of the USA’s history of political dissent, with government bullying presented alongside constitutional law as a means to limit it. Foremost a criminal defence lawyer, Spacey beautifully plays the emotional tumult of Darrow’s success: he never let a client receive the death penalty, but it regularly meant defending the lives of those he knew to be guilty of the most vile crimes. For instance, Darrow represented the two child- murderers Leopold and Loeb in what would be called the “Trial of the Century”. After a colossal 12 hour long closing speech, he managed to reduce their death sentence to life in prison.
The Tennessee ‘Monkey Trial’ is perhaps Darrow’s most well-known case, where he defended the right of a school teacher to teach evolution. Still in monologue, he re-lived the cross-exam- ination of a Biblical scholar, pondering how Cain acquired a wife if, of the three other people supposedly alive, the only woman was meant to be his mother Eve.
Yet the ‘Sweet Trials’ would be his real chal-lenge. In 1925, a black family of 11 were arrested on the charge of murder after a white mob tried to forcibly remove the family from their home. One member of the mob died. Darrow’s closing remarks (lasting around seven hours), implored the all-white jury to recognise a “Law of Love”, and thus convinced them to produce a verdict of not-guilty for one of thedefendants, as well as causing the charges to be dropped for the rest.
Spacey’s interpretation of the trial was extremely impressive. He harnessed the opportunities presented by the theatre in the round by using one corner of the audience as the imagined jury to which he passionately pleaded, and the front row of another to show how, after the verdict came through, Darrow shook the hand of every member of courtroom present (I was lucky enough to be amongst that front row).
Kevin Spacey’s portrayal of this hero of American liberalism is a refreshing change from his famous roles as arch-pragmatists, such as Richard III or Frank Underwood. The raw emotion of Spacey was incomparable, and leaving aside the unnecessary and emotionally manipulative tinkling piano that accompanied his exit at the ends of the two acts, this produc- tion was exemplary. Surely amongst Spacey’s greatest theatrical performances as both actor and director.