Clarence Darrow, Old Vic, London – review

Kevin Spacey’s voice assumes a gravelliness akin to that of Henry Drummond’s big-screen incarnation ‘Spencer Tracy’

The first thing we see is the feet, sticking out from beneath the huge, overladen double desk whose underside Clarence Darrow is hammering, much as he hammered at the underside of American jurisprudence for half a century, trying to keep parts such as the First Amendment in working order.

Kevin Spacey has already played a thinly fictionalised version of this great American lawyer here (defence counsel Henry Drummond in Inherit The Wind in 2009), and this time Spacey’s voice assumes a gravelliness akin to that of Drummond’s big-screen incarnation Spencer Tracy.

In Thea Sharrock’s staging of David W Rintels’ one-man play, the predominant trait of his delivery is its force; “barnstorming” is the word. Perhaps Spacey is overestimating the volume it takes to ensure clarity throughout the Old Vic’s reconfigured in-the-round space; perhaps he is trying to pull the walls in to create greater intimacy (he sporadically succeeds, ranging around the stage and up and down the main aisle, constantly taking his arguments to specific audience members); perhaps it is simply a character choice. Whatever the cause, it grows wearing.

Yet you come to feel that what is grinding you down is not Darrow’s bull-roaring but the iniquities against which he is railing: the series of free-speech and conspiracy-to-murder cases he defended as a labour lawyer and then a criminal lawyer, prosecutions motivated by a will to suppress worker activism and by plain racism. His most famous briefs were his defence of the right to teach Darwin in the Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925 (as dramatised in Inherit The Wind) and of the “thrill killers” Leopold and Loeb the previous year. Darrow is candid about not always winning his cases but he boasts (not entirely factually) that of 102 people he defended on capital charges, he never lost one to Death Row.

Again and again over an hour and three-quarters, he drives home his salt-of-the-earth progressive views: “There is no such thing as ‘crime’ as that word is generally understood . . . the real cause of crime is poverty”, and above all the simple core motive “to temper justice with mercy”. This charity seemingly affects Spacey himself: when a punter’s mobile phone went off on press night, he kept his response, “If you don’t answer that, I will,” down to a growl. His Darrow, running to seed with a lock of lank hair hanging across his high forehead like an incipient comb-over, isn’t a heroic figure – but he is undoubtedly a hero.

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