Inherit the Wind at The Old Vic

Originally posted on November 26, 2009.

He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind:
and the fool shall be servant to the wise of heart.
— Proverbs 11:29

A play at the Old Vic — is there a more enjoyable way to spend a Tuesday night? If it is watching Trevor Nunn’s new production of Inherit the Wind, then not many. Although the play, based on the Scopes monkey trial of 1925, is slightly rusty, old-fashioned and preachy, the current production is absolutely first class entertainment. Despite still being topical (the debate between evolution and religion continues to this date), Robert E Lee and Jerome Lawrence’s play shows its age and limitations — the love story is really forced, the townspeople are ciphers and the whole thing has a slightly Hollywood feel to it. But the production is terrific, playing to all the play’s strengths. Nunn’s direction is smart and energetic. We feel that we are part of the town, Hillsboro (the fictional Southern town in which the play is set), feeling its passion and the sweltering Summer heat. The scene changes are particularly strong. Between each scene, the town’s people break into excellent gospel singing, a technique which both serves to highlight the religious sentiment in the community as well as entertaining the audience. The set design is impeccable. Rob Howell’s creations are fluid and sleek — and the stage transforms from a town to a train station to a court-house with remarkable grace and ease. When the stage is set up as Hillsboro, it seems to go back forever, adding a great sense of depth to the play. It was also perhaps reminiscent of the perspective in a Renaissance painting which meets at a point in the distance.

But it is the performances which really make the show. Kevin Spacey is extremely good as Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow’s fictional representation). Hunched over and wearing a white wig, he steals the scene from the moment he appears in the almost abandoned town late in the evening. During the court room scenes, he is charismatic and witty, devastatingly believable in his mocking attack of the Creationists’ arguments. His opponent, however, is no shrinking violet and David Troughton is top-notch as Matthew Harrison Brady (the fictional William Jennings Bryan of the play). When Brady arrives in town to a hero’s welcome, Troughton beautifully captures the character’s easy charm and common touch of an experienced politician. However, as the court case progresses, his hubris gets the better of him and he succumbs to Drummond’s cross-examinations. We should also mention Mark Dexter’s turn asΒ  E. K. Hornbeck (an exaggerated version of H. L. Mencken) as well as Ken Bones’s powerful performance as the town’s deranged preacher. However, the star of the show might just be an organ grinder’s monkey who appears in the first act, a reminder of man’s origin. On the night we were there, when Hornbeck gave the monkey a coin, the entire audience let out an audible awwwwwwwwww.

Clearly timed to co-ordinate with the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the production manages to accomplish its goal: to remind us that even though it has been more than 80 years since the Scopes monkey trial, our conversations have not evolved that much.

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