The Theatreguide.London Review
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee's 1955 courtroom play is a drama a clef, a history lesson, a debate between faith and reason that is not unsympathetic to the side it rejects, and a rollicking good melodrama with two juicy roles for stars willing and able to play larger than life. And Trevor Nunn's production does full justice to all its aspects, making for a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying Good Night Out.
Based on an actual 1925 Tennessee case in which a schoolteacher was prosecuted for violating state law and teaching evolution rather than creationism, Lawrence and Lee's script presents thinly fictionalised versions of the national figures who got involved - former Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan leading the prosecution, flamboyant civil rights attorney Clarence Darrow for the defence, and cynical journalist H. L. Mencken reporting on what was the Trial of the Century until the next Trial of the Century came along. (In the play, as in real life, the teacher himself is a relative nonentity relegated to the fringes of the story.)
Old Vic Artistic Director Kevin Spacey appears at least once a year at the theatre, and it is easy to see why he chose to play the Darrow figure, since he not only gets the last word in almost every scene, but also gets to deliver caustic witticisms that are right up Spacey's alley.
To his credit, though, he doesn't just sit back and deliver the zingers, but creates a fully rounded character, from his white hair, stooped shoulders and half-staggering walk to his unwavering commitment to freedom of thought and his not-at-all paradoxical respect for the opponent who sincerely and honourably stands for everything he hates.
David Troughton actually has the harder job as the character based on Bryan, since he has to be the voice of ignorance and prejudice while still retaining some of our sympathy. Troughton plays him as a life-long politician, instinctively turning every conversation into a stump speech and delivering every speech to an unseen crowd.
But he also shows us the man whose world makes sense because it is based on his religious faith, and who can brook no threat to that security.
And one of the strengths of the play, and of Trevor Nunn's direction, is that it understands and respects that faith even as the events of the story threaten it. The inhabitants of the fictional small town could easily be presented as the hillbillies and boobs the Mencken character sees them as, but the playwrights and director show us uneducated but honest folk who live in a tiny world generally unaffected by scientific theories, just trying to keep that world from crumbling around them.
Meanwhile, there's the trial itself, with the two attorneys scoring off each other with a combination of determination to win and grudging respect for each other's skill. The climax comes as Spacey's character actually puts his opponent on the witness stand (as his historical model did) and makes him defend a literalist reading of the Bible - an opportunity for Spacey to rack up intellectual and comic points while Troughton shows us a man suddenly aware of the personal stakes he is fighting for.
Inherit The Wind is what used to be called middle-brow drama - thought-provoking without being too challenging, emotionally satisfying without reaching for high tragedy, and above all thoroughly entertaining.
It does not pretend to be more than it is, but it does what it does brilliantly.
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Review - Inherit The Wind - Old Vic 2009