Sunday, 15 November 2009

Daring to question

Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee

The Old Vic, London

When Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee penned their fictionalised account of the infamous 1925 Scopes 'Monkey' Trial, they did so with the aim of making it a parable of the McCarthy hysteria that was sweeping the US in the 1950s.

But their play – originally staged in 1955 and regularly revived in the US – has been badly served on the British stage, with only one small-scale production until this major staging.

Here, the Old Vic, under the artistic directorship of Kevin Spacey, has taken on what has, in the UK, become familiar to most people via the 1960 film starring Spencer Tracey, Frederc March and Gene Kelly, plus three subsequent TV film versions, all of which have impressive casts.

What strikes you watching the play is that it is difficult to locate it as relating to McCarthyism in anything like the way that one can still do with Arthur Miller's 1953 masterpiece, The Crucible.

But what viewing Lawrence and Lee's play now does, to a far greater extent than Miller's magnificent piece – although they share the idea of using real-life examples of religious fundamentalism as their base – is emphasise the continuing present-day conflict between fundamentalism and modern life.

There is a view that the Scopes trial was where modern (a contradiction in terms, surely?) creationism began. For many believers, there was no essential conflict between the Bible and Darwin. Many, many Christians already saw the Bible as allegorical rather than a literal account: thus the seven days of creation could quite easily mean, for instance, seven million years. There was no conflict that affected faith.

In the play, this is what defence lawyer Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow in the real case) attempts to show the court and his opposite number, Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryan), when he describes the Bible as "poetic" rather than literal. But Drummond, of course, wants to stick to his belief – 'Young Earth Creationism' – which takes the Earth as being around 6,000 years old. Any evidence to the contrary is simply dismissed.

The first half of the play sets everything up for the trial scene. It's okay but not brilliant. The second half, which is set entirely in the court room, is far, far better. The writing is sharp and the conflict between ideas of faith and evidence crystal clear.

What the play also has, at the very end, is a very humane heart. Drummond does not take pleasure in Brady's downfall: when the cynical journalist Hornbeck (HL Mencken) derides him for 'faith', it is ultimately for a faith in humanity and human beings, and his refusal to condemn Brady – indeed, his refusal to forget Brady's early role for good, in helping to extend the suffrage.

There are uncomfortable moments: many in the audience seem to relish so much Hornbeck's biting dismissal of Brady and those who think like him, that they have forgotten the Act 1 mentions of his role in extending the suffrage. They enjoy only the bullying of the ultra-cynical Hornbeck. But then, bullying takes centre stage here. Brady himself bullies the clergyman's daughter, who is also bullied by her father. Drummond gets into the act, effectively bullying Brady in court. The attitude of the townspeople – apparently largely committed to a Bradyesque view of the world – borders on verbal lynch mob. They hide behind the safety of being a large and homogenised group that has an belief not simply in God, but in their own righteousness; their own certainty that they know the right way.

Indeed, Brady's downfall is caused by his 'sin' (if you will) of believing that he has a direct and utterly unchallengeable knowledge of the will of God.

The Old Vic's production was directed by Trevor Nun, with all the creativeness and energy that you'd expect from him, and stars David Troughton as Brady and Spacey himself as Drummond.

Troughton is good – very good. But having seen him already this year in the revival of Alan Bennett's Enjoy, you recognise some of the same physical movements. Indeed, going slightly further, my description of his performance in that said that his Wilf was "magnificent: bullying, bluff and frightened". And the same things are here in his Brady.

The writers make us wait for Drummond's entry. And it's late in the first act when he shambles on stage, weighed down by two heavy bags. For a moment, you don't realise who it is. Spacey's physicality in the role is astonishing. Darrow was almost 70 when he defended John T Scopes in Dayton, Tennessee. Spacey is 50, but everything about him is older here – except the mind. And while he might have gone to almost Method lengths physically (although I'd suggest it's more faithful to Stanislavski and less a slave to Strasberg), there are no mumblings here, but real relish for the script and the character and the situation. It's a bravura performance to thoroughly enjoy, and one where, at the end, he brings great compassion to the climax.

All in all, a very good production indeed – and enormously timely, as we find ourselves no further away from fundamentalist religion attempting to control our lives than in Dayton in 1925. It seems incredibly perverse that we seem reluctant to address Christian fundamentalism – the issue of creationism in schools is more an issue in schools in the UK today than it has been for many, many a year – even as we face what we are told is a clash of cultures with fundamentalist Islam.

Perhaps the former is apparently alive and well preceisely because of the threat of the latter?

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