Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee's 1955 Broadway play is based on the real-life 1925 Scopes 'Monkey' Trial in which John Scopes was prosecuted for violating a Tennessee state statute by teaching Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to his students.
The case attracted worldwide headlines and two famous lawyers to do battle - Clarence Darrow for the defence and William Jennings Bryan for the prosecution – who were fictionalised by the playwrights as Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady. In the 1960 film, the parts were played by Spencer Tracy and Fredric March. In Nunn’s production, they’re taken by Old Vic artistic director Kevin Spacey and David Troughton, respectively.
The 40-strong cast also features Sam Phillips as Bertram Cates (the Scopes character), Mark Dexter as journalist EK Hornbeck (based on the real-life HL Mencken), Sonya Cassidy and Ken Bones. The production is designed by Rob Howell, with costumes by Howell and Irene Bohan, lighting by Howard Harrison, sound by Fergus O’Hare and music supervision by Steven Edis.
While all of the overnight critics noted the timeliness of the production, there was disagreement as to whether this alone warranted dusting off what many perceived to be a “clunky, old play”. For most, the “strong” and “marvellous” central performances from Spacey and Troughton, and in particular their “blistering” courtroom head-to-head, was more than enough to compensate for any script weaknesses. Mark Dexter and Ken Bones also won plaudits in supporting roles. And director Trevor Nunn managed to erase bad critical memories of another piece featuring “wind” in the title and set in the American South with an “epic” and “spirited” production that marshals a “vast cast” to create a real sense of community.