Clarence Darrow is not a household name in the UK but, in the US, where he practiced law for numerous years, he was incontestably the champion of the underdog. He defended the undefendable and was demonized by many and even charged with bribery by some trying to stop this liberal litigator. He famously represented the defense in the Scopes Monkey trial of 1925, which led to the teaching of evolution in public schools. So there is no denying that he was a giant in his time.
David W. Rintels’s Clarence Darrow charts the life story of this man born in 1857 who didn’t even finish college and only attend one year of law school. The play was first staged on Broadway in 1974 with Henry Fonda starring in the 2-hour epic monologue and also made into a PBS movie with Spacey in 1991. Fonda garnered rave reviews for his performance and Kevin Spacey who reprises the stage role on his home turf gives a truly powerful performance. He seems to embody Darrow completely which is a feat indeed if one is familiar with his House of Cards character Francis Underwood, considering that the two characters are antipodes from one another.
Instead of focusing on his most famous trial, Rintel stages his play in Darrow’s apartment where the perhaps recently retired Darrow proceeds to unpack a number of boxes, sorting documents and photos which bring back memories of many court cases and events of his life. In the process, he interrogates absent witnesses, addresses the audience as jury and even shakes their hand. Rintel used transcripts of courtroom proceedings to write the play and the passion of the man is easily glimpsed within the text. He was a fervent believer in human rights, an opponent of the death penalty and an early advocate of civil rights.
The play touches upon his work representing workers and his interrogation of a 10-year-old boy who lost a leg in a mine related work accident is a powerful reminder of where we once were and of the many struggles that have often been forgotten. When Darrow broke off his partnership with the labor movement, he re-invented himself as a criminal lawyer. He was the attorney hired to represent the two law student in the sensational Leopold and Loeb murder case (famous trial upon which many plays and movies where made including Hamilton’s and Hitchcock’s Rope) where the two where accused of killing 14-year-old Bobby Franks just for the fun of it – to commit the perfect murder.
Spacey is charming, defensive, sarcastic and human. I couldn’t help thinking that I would really have liked to meet the man himself. The Old Vic’s seating is now in the round and you can tell that the director, Thea Sharrock, had fun letting Spacey move around the theatre followed by a single beam of light and make all 1,000 of us feel part of this intimate story, even sitting down next to a young woman in the audience when admitting to adultery and his position on free love.
While the play is certainly worthy, it does, however, lack drama. Darrow is constant throughout and while the cases are fascinating his life story is not dramatic. It is a tour de force by Spacey who gives us a lovely swam song as he hands over the reins of the Old Vic after a ten-year tenure as artistic director but the text undeniably lets him down.