17 March 2015

Kevin Spacey's swan song with Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic


Occasionally I push the boat out and go for a west end production when my natural instincts are to live among the fringe theatres. Clarence Darrow was one such occasion and the clear reason for going was to see Kevin Spacey at his swansong as artistic director at the Old Vic. I has seen him as Richard III in 2011 and he had been brilliant in that.

Even so, there was still a limit to what I was prepared to pay for the experience and I went for a relatively cheap ticket (£35) up in the gods (Lilian Baylis Circle D15).

My expectations were given a little lift when I saw Twelve Angry Men a few days previously and somebody mentioned Clarence Darrow (the real person, not the play) in that.

On the day I worked in our Kings Cross office and walked the increasingly familiar road down to Southwark looking for somewhere to eat. I discovered Culture Grub, a small Chinese restaurant that seems to cater mostly for students and the poorer locals. The food was good, quick and cheap. I suspect that I'll be back there next time I am looking to eat before going to the Old or Young Vics.

My view from the gods was fine and my reasoning that the play would be all about the voice and little about the staging proved to be right. The stage, such as it was, consisted of a desk and a few cabinets in his office. Some unpacking and sorting out was going on but that was just an excuse to add movement to the play.

The other technique used to make the play more than just a speech was to engage with the audience in some of the exchanges. Nobody sitting in the front rows was ready for this and so it did not always work that well.

But that was just the froth on the top, the play was all about Kevin Spacey's delivery of Clarence Darrow's words. These fell into two camps, stories about his life and reenactments of court scenes. This approach worked very well and produced a variety of moods that a simple narration could have missed. In his personal life Darrow was funny, flippant and motivated and as a court lawyer he was passionate and loquacious.

And that was kind of the point, Darrow had his heart in the right place and he had the skills to help people.

Darrow explained several cases to us and, given the period that we were talking about, it is not surprising that these covered unionisation (a.k.a. communism) and race. Darrow was helping the people in real-life that Steinbeck was standing up for in his books. My sympathies were naturally with the people that Darrow was working for and that helped me to like him and, therefore, the play.

The mix of narration and re-enactment gave the play some mood changes while the pace stayed pretty constant with no twists or surprises. It was left to the skill of Kevin Spacey to breath life in to the words, and that he did. This was a fitting farewell for Spacey but more because it was a one-man show rather than because of the strength of the role. I'll remember his Richard III more.

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