As scientists discover man’s earliest ancestor, Kevin Spacey returns to the Old Vic’s stage in a courtroom drama inspired by a real reaction against Darwin’s theories.
I had never realised quite how deep the Old Vic stage was until seeing Rob Howell’s set design for Inherit The Wind. The town of Hillsboro’s main street seems to stretch for miles as its inhabitants march and sing hymns to proclaim the arrival of messianic lawyer and failed presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady to save them from the evils of a teacher who dared to introduce Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species to his class.
The choice of lesson was illegal in this town of the American south, yet from what could be seen as a small indiscretion grows a court case to capture the imagination of an entire country.
It is less religion versus science, more fundamentalism versus adaptability or close-mindedness versus the freedom to think, as Kevin Spacey’s wily lawyer Henry Drummond tries to convince a staunchly biblical town that there is space in the world for more than one viewpoint.
It is in the bristling confrontation between Spacey’s Drummond and David Troughton’s Brady that the piece, first staged in 1955 but rarely seen in London, really lives: Drummond droll and witty, regularly sporting a wry, barely perceptible smile; Brady a constant orator and leader of men, sniffing his way through the stifling southern heat and bellowing his belief in the very letter of the Bible.
Though Spacey and Troughton take centre stage, director Trevor Nunn has built a huge supporting cast around them, filling Hillsboro with townsfolk who barely need an invitation to strike up a hymn, tut their disapproval or fawn over the man they believe has been sent to save them.
Among them, Ken Bones reverberates as a Reverend Brown too quick to cast damnation upon his daughter (Sonya Cassidy), who is caught between her faith and the man she loves. Mark Dexter, as cynical, arrogant, yet strangely alluring journalist EK Hornbeck, has many of Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee’s best lines, rattling out metaphors and phrases worthy of any front page.
Based on a trial that took place in 1925, Nunn has ensured that Inherit The Wind is rooted very much in its own time period, but its central sparring and clash of ideologies make it as relevant now as when the Scopes Monkey Trial, on which it is based, took place in 1925.