Inherit the Wind
Cast 1 Oct 2009: Kevin Spacey & David Troughton
Cast 1 Oct 2009: David Troughton & Kevin Spacey
This year being the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin's belief-shattering book 'On the origin of Species', it's hardly surprising that the famous evolutionist and his ideas are cropping up in all manner of guises including this stage production. Here, director Trevor Nunn has revived the 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee based on the so-called 'Scopes Monkey Trial' which took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925.
In effect, this is a courtroom drama, even though much of the first half is set in the town. The background to the case is that a school teacher, John Scopes, fell foul of a state law prohibiting the teaching of any theory which denied the biblical story of Divine Creation. In fact, this was a kind of test case brought to counter the threat to academic freedom and to decide if this kind of state law was unconstitutional.
Though writers Lawrence and Lee made no bones about the fact that theirs was a fictional account of events, their story sticks pretty closely to the facts of the case if a casual reading of the Scopes trial transcripts are to be depended upon.
It's a battle of titanic attorneys, notably Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan who took opposite sides in the real trial. For this fictional version of the events, Darrow evolves into Henry Drummond (Kevin Spacey) and Bryan transmogrifies into Matthew Harrison Brady (played by David Troughton).
The first half draws us in with the introduction of the central characters, fine singing from the large cast, a first-rate and well-lit set and even an appearance by a lively small monkey that almost steals the show. The second half didn't bring the anticipated gripping finale. Instead it rather transmuted into a kind of courtroom farce, where denied the right to introduce expert testimony, defence lawyer Drummnd decides to examine his opposite number, the prosecution attorney. Strange you may think, but true. Still, that needn't have prevented the authors from making more of it, or devising some other technique to force the argument onto a more serious and demanding plane.
David Troughton as Matthew Harrison Brady almost literally quivers with evangelical fervour, and bears a striking resemblance to William Jennings Bryan (the original trial lawyer). Finger pointing from his imposing frame, Brady is an authoritative, larger than life character who likes to think he's in charge. On the opposite bench is Kevin Spacey as cynic and voice of the underdog, Henry Drummond. Spacey is in excellent form here, looking almost smugly comfortable in the role and with a zest for humour especially when he's quizzing Brady about the 'begatting' in the bible and how Caine managed to acquire a wife.
The title for 'Inherit the Wind' is taken from the bible, Proverbs 11:29. The relevant quote being: 'He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind'. And that's exactly what Darwin did, angering those whose beliefs he was challenging with his new scientific knowledge. And the quarrel between creationists and evolutionists still rages, even if the Church of England have recently apologised for their initial reaction to Darwin's ideas. No doubt sparks are going to continue to fly.
Topical and timely, 'Inherit The Wind' is not simply about Darwin's theories, it's as much about the freedom to think and to ask questions as Kevin Spacey's Drummond points out. This production certainly gives food for thought, but the promise it offered in the first half just failed to materialise. The blame really rests with the original play rather than the characterisations or the quality of the production, but it nevertheless felt disappointing.
"Can fine acting make up for a clunky old play? Absolutely. And, in this case, it has to...it yields some first-rate acting and a vivid production."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Able revival...watching an urbane Spacey tame an increasingly edgy Troughton is as mesmerising as watching a veteran matador skilfully skewer an enormous bull."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
"Barnstorming Trevor Nunn production...his first-rate cast do full justice to its intellectual arguments and theatrical vitality."
Gerald Berkowitz for THe Stage
"Despite solid and at times silvery execution Inherit the Wind is unappetising fare."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Cracking entertainment and proof that few things work as effectively in theatre as a good old-fashioned courtroom drama."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph