REVIEW: Clarence Darrow, Old Vic Theatre ✭✭✭

Kevin Spacey in Clarence Darrow. Photo: Manuel Harlan
Kevin Spacey in Clarence Darrow. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Clarence Darrow
Old Vic Theatre
4 June 2014
3 Stars

Act Two. Kevin Spacey is in full flight, gesticulating wildly and whipping up a frenzy of righteous indignation as he recreates one of Clarence Darrow’s jury speeches, a particularly passionate and poignant one. Spacey’s voice is bellowing, full of fruity resonance. Then, rather like a buzzing mosquito, another sound permeates the vastness of the Old Vic’s reconfigured in-the-round space, oddly, confusingly, cutting across Spacey’s articulation. Is he somehow harmonising with himself? Then the sound gets louder and louder, assuming a throbbing, agitating insistence, becoming both a bull smashing through a china shop and an operatic soprano with hiccups shattering champagne glasses. It’s a cold, impersonal and grotesque sound, accelerating in speed and intensity, desperately hoping for someone to answer the fucking phone so that the impatient whining drill of volcanic crystalline horror can end.

But no one answers the phone.

Exasperated, having tried earnestly to push through, to evacuate the audience’s minds of anything except his own voice, Spacey breaks his rhythm and turns away, clutching the table. Simultaneously, the plague of sound expires and Spacey mutters “if you don’t answer that, I will”.

The audience erupts in laughter, very warm applause for the Spaceymeister.

Everyone looks to see who reaches for a phone. In-the-round theatres are merciless for the audience. But no one does. And neither does anyone who has still got their fucking phone on in the auditorium turn their own potential scene destroyer off. So, later, twice more, phones would ring and thrice more, at least, people took apparently life-threatening emails or messages.

But only once did Spacey intervene. And, having done so, he took the time to turn to the largest part of the audience and smirk, sending a “That’ll show the fucker” message into the auditorium.

The interesting part of this was that Spacey did not really step out of “character” in these moments. As odd as it sounds, it was all just another “jury” moment for Spacey’s Darrow.
Clarence Darrow, a play by David W Rintels based upon Irving Stone’s novel Clarence Darrow for the Defense, directed by Thea Sharrock and playing at the Old Vic was, last evening, the occasion of the “great Spacey Phone moment”, having its Press Night.

Darrow is regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, American jurists of all time. He was a passionate grandstander who took on unpopular causes and won, who changed the face of labour laws in America and who, throughout his life, was an avowed opponent of the death penalty. He also had a son named Paul, a piece of trivia perhaps of interest to Blake’s Seven fans.

This is a one man show and, in many ways, it establishes the case against one man shows as effective forms of drama. (There can be eloquent “for” cases too – Eileen Atkins’ marvellous tour de force as Ellen Terry being one such “for” case)

Throughout the play, Darrow interacts with various characters and it is almost impossible not to form the view that everything would have been crisper, cleaner, more exciting, had other actors been there to enliven those characters.

Sharrock and Spacey do as much as can reasonably be expected to provide variety and interest in the staging, but an early decision establishes that Spacey plays at least two versions of Darrow, perhaps more: Darrow in the moment, recreating some famous scene; Darrow in reflective mode, looking back on his life and commenting on it. A sub-category, perhaps, of the latter is the scene-setting stuff, mini historical lectures if you like, Darrow gives to set up the set pieces in the former category.

Spacey does not play one character; he is Darrow and he observes Darrow. He works within the confines of the stage and smashes the fourth wall. Hence, the Phone Moment seemed almost seamless.

The trouble is, though, that the material is almost certainly better when read rather than when watched. Visually and dramatically, it’s a reasonably dull night in the theatre.

In part, this is because Spacey is “acting” too much. You never get to see Darrow as a real human being; throughout he is a Spacey construct. It is resolutely Kevin Spacey doing a star turn. It’s more cabaret than drama.

This is not to say that there are not moments of value; there are. There is an especially affecting moment when he discusses the end of Darrow’s first marriage and the scenes where the facts of a bombing case overwhelm Darrow are rigidly tense. And Spacey has no trouble tapping into the homespun aspects of Darrow’s character.

But, throughout, and especially in the section dealing with the Darwin evolution teaching case, it was all a pale shadow of the theatrical excitement of Inherit The Wind, in which Spacey played the Darrowesque character of Drummond. This is because, unlike in the Atkins example, Spacey is not playing one character consistently.

Inevitably, the audience gave Spacey a standing ovation. Whether for the feat of memory involved, the panache with which he dealt with the “Phone Moment” or just because he is that guy from House of Cards is not clear.

It certainly was not because this was the greatest performance he has given as an actor.

Joan Plowright was in the audience, wearing a hat, looking frail, small and diminished. She smiled endlessly. She must have been imaging what Olivier would have done with such a part in the very theatre which was the beginning of the National theatre’s life. Or perhaps she knew he wouldn’t have done it – because it isn’t really theatre.

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