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Review Round-up: Does Wind Win Critical Trial?

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Coinciding with this year’s Charles Darwin anniversaries – 200 years since his birth, 150 since the publication of On the Origin of Species - Trevor Nunn’s large-scale revival of Inherit the Wind opened last Thursday (1 October 2009, previews from 18 September) at the Old Vic, where it runs until 12 December (See 1st Night Photos, 2 Oct 2009).

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.

  • Simon Edge on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “With creationism back in full cry in the US, it needs to be taken literally again. We’re not in the States, though. Inherit the Wind is meant to be director Trevor Nunn’s contribution to this year’s Darwin anniversaries, but it’s much less relevant over here than in America. His caution in falling back on this occasionally clunking courtroom drama looks sadly like another example of the Old Vic’s obsession with all things American under Kevin Spacey’s helm ... As opposite number Matthew Harrison Brady, David Troughton gives the real star turn. With a rubber face, an expressive sniff and fidgety shoulders that seem to operate independently of the rest of him, he’s a lumbering bear of a political demagogue ... But with everyone decked out in sepia, on a courtroom-based set by Rob Howell that isn’t as inventive as it would like to be, it’s visually underwhelming ... A well-meaning challenge to religious mania, the production doesn’t deserve to go the way that Nunn’s previous breeze-related venture, Gone With the Wind, did last year. But it’s more a zephyr than a cyclone.
  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Since some 46% of Americans reportedly believe that Darwin got it wrong ... you can’t call Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee’s 54-year-old play particularly dated. Over here a greater proportion doubtless regards evolution as fact, not theory - but there’s still much in Trevor Nunn’s able revival to absorb any British theatregoer, notably a courtroom scene that brings Kevin Spacey and David Troughton into near-mortal combat ... Both principals are strong enough to justify the revival of a play better known, like many these days, in its film version. Spacey’s Drummond has white hair, a parchment face, stooped shoulders and a painful walk, but his most unelderly wits and wit fizz round Rob Howell’s set ... Troughton’s massive, paunchy, infinitely vain Brady trundles about, looking like a dinosaur that has miraculously survived its relatives’ extinction, and booming out his syllables as if to rival the crashing meteor that killed them. I’m a sucker for that endangered genre, the courtroom scene, and few come better than the one in which Spacey puts his foe on the stand ... The play has its weaknesses ... but you forgive the occasional clunkiness. That’s partly because Nunn again displays his ability to handle large casts, here crowds of 30 or 40 singing hymns and waving Bible Belt banners — but mostly because watching an urbane Spacey tame an increasingly edgy Troughton is as mesmerising as watching a veteran matador skilfully skewer an enormous bull.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) – “Can fine acting make up for a clunky old play? Absolutely. And, in this case, it has to ... The piece itself by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee is shaky stuff: the real pleasure comes from watching Kevin Spacey and David Troughton going head to head ... Given the arguments raging in the US, the piece has topicality. But there is little in the way of intellectual debate, and the characters surrounding the two legal Titans are mostly ciphers. The exception is a cynical journalist, clearly the villain of the piece, who amounts to a gross slur on the real-life HL Mencken. But the acting and production overcome the play's defects. Kevin Spacey is a particular joy to watch as the liberal ... (his) great achievement is to combine passion and wit ... Troughton is equally fine, capturing the character's naked defencelesness when his certainties are eroded ... Trevor Nunn's production also gives the setpiece debate a context by creating a sense of community ... And, if the minor characters are thinly written, Mark Dexter as the sceptical hack, Ken Bones as the demented preacher, and Sonya Cassidy as his divided daughter all impress.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (two stars) – “The play’s level of argument is low, and the experience of watching it becomes a judicial process in its own right. The case for the prosecution is robust. Instead of the white heat and subtleties of debate, we have a clunky exposition of starkly binary positions. When the play was written it must have seemed a bold affront to McCarthyism, but now it feels more like an essay in dramatic torpor ... Spacey is, as ever, luxuriously watchable. He imbues every gesture with significance; no little twinge is unpoetic. Rob Howell’s design impressively exploits the depth of the Old Vic’s stage, and Trevor Nunn’s production contains agile ensemble work from the huge cast, which evokes the sheer spectacle of community ... There’s even an appealing turn by a live rhesus monkey, but none of this extenuates the turgid preachiness of the play ... Despite solid and at times silvery execution Inherit the Wind is unappetising fare.”
  • Sarah Hemmings in the Financial Times (three stars) – “Though the drama is a bit of a throwback, the issues, astonishingly, are not (the new film about Darwin, Creation, had trouble finding a US distributor). The play, lovingly staged by Trevor Nunn, builds to a blistering conclusion with two legal giants slugging it out in the courtroom. David Troughton and Kevin Spacey are tremendous, their bruising encounter forcefully reminding us that the struggle between faith and reason, fundamentalism and tolerance, is not over. Nunn’s production certainly looks a treat. Rob Howell’s set brings unusual depth to the Old Vic stage and sketches in the small town, “the buckle on the Bible belt”, with charming, sepia backdrops on which Nunn creates a series of tableaux ... Once the drama hits the trial proper the production soars ... There are pleasing performances too from Ken Bones as a hellfire preacher and Mark Dexter as a suave, cynical journalist. The case for the prosecution, then: this is a solid old play given a rather outmoded production. The case for the defence: the arguments are still with us and they blaze into life in two marvellous performances. The defence wins the day.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “With almost 50% of Americans still denying the idea of evolution 150 years after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the new film about his life, Creation, struggling to find a US distributor, this revival of Inherit the Wind (1955) couldn’t be more timely. It shows that ignorance and intolerance aren’t the exclusive preserve of Islamist fanatics. Christianity can have its dark side, too. But the play, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee, is cracking entertainment and proof that few things work as effectively in theatre as a good old-fashioned courtroom drama. Trevor Nunn, who came such a cropper with a musical version of Gone With the Wind, here redeems himself. It’s an epic production with a vast cast and evocative designs by Rob Howell that brings a Bible-belt town in the 1920s to life, before coming up with a trial scene that is gripping, amusing and touching ... Though there are many fine supporting performances, most notably from Ken Bones as a hellfire-threatening priest, three performances stand out. Mark Dexter is deliciously cool and witty as the apparently cynical but in fact morally decent journalist reporting the case, while David Troughton is superb as the self-regarding, oratorically booming Bible-basher of a populist prosecutor. Best of all is Kevin Spacey ... He catches a mixture of sharp wit, righteous indignation and sudden glimpses of great human warmth and compassion. This old play creaks a bit but it remains a sturdy, splendidly eloquent defence of tolerance in a bigoted world.”
  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “After the ill-fated musical version of Gone With the Wind, you might have thought that Trevor Nunn would have wanted to steer clear of the American South. But the director is back there now in the Old Vic's remarkably involving revival of Inherit the Wind ... Its defence of the right to think for oneself is as timely as ever. It also offers the delight of watching two fine actors going head-to-head in the climactic courtroom ding-dong ... Spacey's superb Drummond is a wily, almost negligently charismatic legal titan ... Matching him in stage presence, Troughton portrays Brady as, in part, a mountainous overgrown child, greedy for public approval and willing to resort to the cheapest rhetorical tricks to get it ... Though you occasionally feel that Nunn wouldn't be averse to turning this into a full-scale musical, he does a spirited job in creating a sense of the local community. Scenes are connected by a hymn-singing, banner-waving crowd of God-fearing worthies ... Mark Dexter makes a strong impression as a suavely sceptical visiting reporter.”
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