Review: Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

There are few things in life more deliciously exciting than tickets. Living in London, one of the culture capitals of the world, I am spoiled for choice – and consequently have a drawer in my dresser filled with tickets and programmes from trips to the theatre, cinema, ballet, exhibitions…

Collecting cultural paraphernalia is an old habit left over from my boarding school days, when every inch of my walls would be covered with mementos from happy times – photos, ticket stubs, postcards, notes written in class and even the odd receipt. Nowadays, I try to be a little more selective with the contents of the drawer; I think of it as a reflection of how I spend my time, energy and money, valuable resources that are only to be given up for enriching experiences (I’m talking spiritual rather than financial enrichment here).

Luckily for me, there seem to be an abundance of those in this city.

In an overcrowded city like London, identifying something you want to go to is one thing, but actually getting hold of tickets is another. I find that following the social media accounts of all the major venues, as well as publications such as The Stage and the journalists that write for them, tends to mean that you’re one of the first to hear about upcoming events and (if you’re a fellow cultural FOMO sufferer) can set alarms to remind you to book when tickets are released. This is especially important if you’re a member of an Under 25 cheap ticket scheme (most big theatres have them), as those seats tend to sell out ridiculously quickly.

This (freakishly?) organised approach usually works for me; I’ve secured tickets to some of the most popular shows of the past six months, including Electra at the Old Vic, King Lear at the National and the upcoming Elephant Man starring Bradley Cooper.

Sometimes, though, a show comes along that defeats my well-honed system with its instantaneous popularity – usually due to celebrity casting. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican was one (I gave up after realising that I was 12,000th in the queue) and Clarence Darrow was another.

This is when having wonderful friends comes in.

I had been desperate to see Kevin Spacey perform at the Old Vic whilst he was still Artistic Director, and had somehow managed to miss every show he was in during his 11-year tenure. The revival of Clarence Darrow, a one-man play about the pioneering US Civil Rights lawyer, was my final chance. Inevitably, the rest of London had the same thought and I failed to get tickets. Imagine my joy, then, when an old friend and teacher emailed out of the blue to invite me to come with her.

What can I say about the performance itself?

Spacey doesn’t just play Darrow, he is him. With his stooped shoulders, southern accent and infallible energy, he bounds around the stage. His masterful knowledge – or, rather, internalisation – of the text is evident in the way he skilfully manipulates our emotions. We laugh, we cry, we’re shocked exactly as and when he intends. When he reveals that the injured miner he’s interrogating is actually a ten year old boy (’And when will you be eleven?’) there is a silence that’s almost palpable.

This juxtaposition between Darrow’s wry humour and his steely sense of justice is clearest in the play’s ultimate moments. His uproarious tale of how he embarrassed the Fundamentalist prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial flows almost seamlessly into an emotionally-charged account of his attempt to save two child murderers from the death penalty and a final, desperate plea to ‘temper justice with mercy’.

‘The world doesn’t change without trouble, sometimes without disaster… but it does change.’ 

>With the staging (director Thea Sharrock makes wonderful use of the Old Vic’s new in-the-round capabilities) and Spacey’s unabashed inclusion of the audience (he bounds up the aisles, sits on seats and even directly addresses individuals), we become jurors in case after case, complicit in the rendering of justice – and of injustice.

Spacey’s performance is a tour de force and received an instantaneous standing ovation – something that us Brits just don’t do, even for the most prestigious shows. But this felt different. This felt special.

Clarence Darrow is on at the Old Vic Theatre until 11th April 2015

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