It feels like a Kevin Spacey party at the moment: as he leaves his post as artistic director of the Old Vic, his Special Award at the 2015 Oliviers and his own gala night are showering praises on him, and the re-run of his 2014 hit show gives more audiences a chance to see why. While I was familiar with Spacey’s acting talents on screen, the live act is truly remarkable.
Let’s face it, the subject could risk being a little dry in the hands of a less charismatic performer. While the history of notable American lawyer Clarence Darrow is fascinating, its staging as a one-man journey round his memories and memorabilia could lose its novelty. Yet Spacey’s performance blows all of these concerns out of the water. I’ve never seen anyone connect with an audience in the way he does; even sitting up in the circle, it’s easy to feel that he’s talking directly to you.
The script is an autobiographical, historical run through Darrow’s extraordinary career – from momentous trials such as his defence of Leopold and Loeb, and the Scopes Trial defending the teaching of Darwinism, to defending those who would not find support elsewhere against the death penalty, in particular against the backdrop of racial tensions and mob violence in Chicago. Yet Spacey peppers the narrative with humour, wit, poignancy and intelligent intrigue, giving a gripping personality and personability to this tale. It is very much about the man behind the trials, but also about this man behind the Old Vic’s recent successes. With a twinkle in his eye yet a slight stoop revealing the burden of the passing years, the energy radiating from this characterisation touches every corner and cranny of the theatre. Spacey undoubtedly has more than a touch of magic about him, and the audience is held spellbound as he winds his way through this tale.
Aside from the star attraction, there is also impressive work on show from designer Alan MacDonald and director Thea Sharrock. The detailed yet compact set is full of detail, just like the memories and the narrative of Darrow. The movement round the space works well – and how jealous was I of those who got to shake hands with the man himself as Spacey moved around the front row of the audience!
This production gives you a real theatre thrill moment: the feeling that you’ve seen one of the great actors of this generation. The instant standing ovation certainly supports this, as I’ve never seen an audience leap to their feet so quickly, all as one. Spacey puts in a fantastic performance that lifts this mildly interesting work into a fascinating and exciting piece of theatre.