Thursday, 5 June 2014

Theatre review: Clarence Darrow

Clarence Darrow was a legendary American lawyer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a relentless advocate of human rights who represented workers and unions against big companies and black Americans against a racist establishment, and whose barnstorming style in court affected the way all US lawyers have addressed juries ever since. Well, they address them like that in every legal drama I've ever seen, so that's definitely accurate. He's also a character Kevin Spacey has kept returning to throughout his career, most recently in Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic. Now, for his penultimate season running the venue, Dame Kev returns to the role in David W Rintels' eponymous monologue. The theatre is still reconfigured in the round, one of Kev's better ideas and a setup I really like - it fits surprisingly well into the architecture, and gives the large building an intimacy, even from the front of the Lilian Baylis Circle where I was sitting.

And that's a good quality for a one-man show to have, even if the performance is inevitably big enough to fill the space anyway. Rintels' play turns out to be a pretty straightforward biography of Darrow, which sees him going through his office, finding and sorting papers that relate to his most famous cases, or those that most affected him.

Thea Sharrock keeps the staging pretty simple, which is for the best as Kev gives a Big American Acting Performance, but to be fair it seems like Darrow was the kind of person for whom that's perfectly in character. And he pitches it about right, showboating of course but never quite going the full Pacino. Darrow's dogged pursuit of treating people decently always comes back to his disgust at the death penalty, so the play builds up to his coming out of retirement to defend his most unforgivable-seeming clients, Leopold and Loeb who killed for fun. (He did in fact manage to get them life sentences instead of execution, but Rintels' play doesn't mention this; I can understand the desire to end on Darrow's own words as this does, but it's a bit odd not to confirm that his epic speech decrying the death penalty did in fact succeed.)

For a show about a great American hero, Clarence Darrow is probably better suited to this side of the pond than the one where it originated: He's a fascinating and quotable man, so he's fun to spend a couple of hours with, and Spacey plays him with a twinkle in his eye, a bit of flirtation with the front row, and a tendency to Clint Eastwood it up by interrogating an empty chair. It might be less interesting for an American with a passing interest in Darrow, as I doubt they'd find much here they didn't know already: Rintels' play is actually a pretty dry biography, only the performance and the quick wit of its subject matter really making it anything more.

Clarence Darrow by David W Rintels is booking until the 15th of June at the Old Vic (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes including interval.

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