Saturday 24 October 2009

The Old Vic Does Darwin (Disappointingly)

On paper the combination of Trevor Nunn, Kevin Spacey and David Troughton in a play based on the infamous Scopes trial looked like a winning combination. Sadly, this Old Vic production doesn't live up to expectations.

As already noted the play, Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee is based on the 1925 prosecution of a Tennessean schoolteacher, John Scopes, for teaching evolution to his pupils. As the play correctly retells, the trial saw William Jennings Bryan (three times presidential candidate and counsel for the prosecution) cross examined as to the Bible's literal accuracy by defence attorney Clarence Darrow, and concluded with Scopes's conviction and fining of $100.

Given the present strength of fundamentalist Christianity in the United States, renewed attempts to force the teaching of intelligent design in schools and the general assaults on free speech which have gone on in both the UK and the US in the face of the terrorist threat, the play would seem ripe for revival. Equally, the programme notes that when originally written it was also responding to the similar issues raised by the McCarthy witch-hunts. Plenty of interpretations to play with then.

Unfortunately, Nunn makes completely the wrong choice. To my mind the success of this play hinges on taking the fundamentalist religious view seriously. The audience must believe in the sincerity of Matthew Harrison Brady (the stand in for Bryan), and the local reverend Jeremiah Brown, not to mention the townspeople who cheer them on. But Nunn appears to have taken the decision to mock their beliefs from the outset. He overdoes the preaching, the hymn singing, the whole atmosphere to the point at which it simply looks staged. This has serious consequences for the characterisations – Brown's sermon is delivered in so overblown a way that his anguish over his daughter's reluctance to go along with him against Cates (Scopes) falls flat. Similarly, the various interjections (“Amen”; “Praise the Lord” etc.) delivered by the townsfolk in the court room didn't convince me that they actually believed these things. Above all, Nunn's decision not to take the fundamentalists seriously sadly undermines Brady (played by David Troughton), making him rather a bloviating joke for much of the play where he should be a powerful and ultimately tragic figure.

Nunn's use of hymn singing also causes a further problem. It slows almost to a crawl the progress of the first act where things should be wound up to fever pitch. Scene changes take twice as long as necessary, but the religious atmosphere isn't improved or made more convincing as a result.

There are some fine performances in this play. Kevin Spacey as the Darrow stand in – Henry Drummond – is typically mesmerising, and plays the aged lawyer so convincingly that one almost does not recognise him. Sonya Cassidy (Rachel Brown) and Sam Phillips (Bertram Cates) also deserve a mention. Overall however, compared to other recent productions treating similar subjects, perhaps most notably the National's chilling St Joan this is a pale narrative. Clearly one cannot put Armstrong and Lee in the same bracket as Shaw, but it is to be regretted that Nunn was not more willing to let the play stand on its own merits.


Anonymous said...

For the record:

1. In the original scopes trail he wasn't convicted Darrow switched the plea to guilty. This was (speculated to be) to prevent Bryan from giving a closing address. The trail actually failed completely and was declared a mistrail.

2. In the play MHB stands for Matthew Harrison Brady no Hammond (I'm pretty sure it was repeated a few times too).

3. when I saw the play I thought that the Singing of the scene change music made them go faster. Watching the cast I don't think they could do them any faster!

I can see where you're coming from on the town almost mocking itself, but perhaps you have never been to a small town where religion means this much. It's not to far from the truth.

Finn Pollard said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Finn Pollard said...

Comment reposted to correct terminology around Darrow and the verdict.

I have corrected Brady's middle name - a minor clerical error.

It is somewhat misleading to suggest that the trial failed completely. The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned the guilty verdict on a technicality, they did not address the constitutionality of the law as Darrow had hoped. Nor were the anti-evolutionary movement laid low by the trial. It is not correct to state that Darrow changed the plea to guilty to prevent Bryan making a closing statement - instead he asked the judge to bring the jury in and instruct them to return "an immediate direct verdict" so that Bryan would not have the opportunity to make a closing statement.

Clearly two people can have different experiences of a performance. My point was not that the townsfolk were mocking themselves but that Nunn in directing them made a mockery of them. I am not in a position to comment on whether this was a more accurate picture of a real small town religious atmosphere, but, as I stated in the review, compared to other theatrical portrayals of religious fundamentalism I found this version unconvincing.

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