I missed Kevin Spacey’s performance in Clarence Darrow last year, so was thrilled to discover it was returning for a limited run. And, goodness me, am I glad I had the chance to witness the great man’s swansong as Artistic Director at The Old Vic. It is a tour de force that marks him as one of the greats. He commands the stage and holds the whole audience in the palm of his hand. No small feat when you alone are playing to the crowd in the theatre’s reconfigured in-the-round space. It would be so easy for part of the audience to feel disengaged, but Mr. Spacey doesn’t allow this to happen. He prowls the stage he has owned during his eleven year tenure, stalks amongst the audience and, on the odd occasion even sits down with them. He has the knack of making you feel he is talking just to you and revels in his role as Civil Rights Lawyer, Clarence Darrow. He obviously finds this famous American fascinating, having already played him twice before. Once in a TV film and then in the play Inherit The Wind, directed at The Old Vic by Trevor Nunn and which focuses on the Scopes “Monkey Trial”.
It’s difficult to find Spacey on stage once the lights go up. Where is the great man? Eventually he can be found lying underneath his desk fixing something or other. Nothing is said for quite a while. A ploy, but a clever one nevertheless, as we’re all hooked, spellbound even. Before he utters a word, Spacey scans the theatre, taking in his audience. Such is his skill, we all feel we’ve been noticed, and when he eventually speaks you can hear a pin drop.
The set, designed by Alan Macdonald, depicts Darrow’s office. It is cluttered with boxes and Spacey spends much of the play delving into them, retrieving photos and memorabilia that remind him of his past life and work. We’re then privy to these reminiscences, at times believing ourselves to be jurors at his various trials. So impassioned is he that we believe it’s the crumpled and stooped lawyer himself we’re watching, so much at the pinnacle of his craft that we can almost see the ex-wife, or various defendants to whom he speaks. With every conspiratorial glance, twinkling eye, cheeky smile and shaken fist Kevin Spacey has us in his thrall.
Darrow himself championed the under dog and defended the little guy, the common folk. During his tenure as a lawyer, he saved more than 100 lives from hanging, often in the most difficult of circumstances. He was totally against prejudice of any kind, so often found himself representing African Americans. He even defended himself on a couple of occasions after having been wrongly indicted on two counts of jury bribery. So it’s no wonder that David W. Rintels wrote this play in 1974 or that Spacey has been so keen to appear in it. In fact he first came across it in 1974 when he was in High School and saw Henry Fonda as Clarence Darrow. In the foreward of the programme, Spacey says that Darrow is a character he has come to know and I suspect admire, mentioning, as he does, his dignity, intelligence and logic. And wow, does this show during the 1hr 50minutes of his superb performance, brilliantly directed by Thea Sharrock.
Kevin Spacey will be sorely missed at The Old Vic. Thanks to his wonderful performance in Moon For The Misbegotten, I became a fully paid up member of this great theatre. My only hope is that this isn’t the last time we’ve seen him on a London stage.