The Old Vic

Kevin Spacey – Clarence Darrow :: Old Vic Theatre, London :: 4-6-2014

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan for The Guardian

I am pleading for the future… when hatred and cruelty will not control our hearts, when we can learn that all life is worth saving; that mercy is the highest attribute of man.

For an actor, assuming you’re not one of the out-of-work ones (rare itself), there’s a certain career path that has been well-trodden over the last half century, since the end of the studio system and the exclusivity contracts given to their stables of stars. The early fight for supporting roles, the toil through endless auditions, catching the eye in average movies, which lets you move onto the next rung, then perhaps getting a decent agent, and then even more supporting roles but maybe in better movies. Depending on what you look like, you could make it to the part of the best friend or love interest, though it would actually be better to be unusual or even average looking, because only then might the parts get interesting. Perhaps you’ll pull the supporting role of a lifetime, the unlikely hero or the revealed villain, and steal the movie. You can succeed because it’s been pre-decided, due to your non-Jackman/Pitt/Cruise level looks, that you’re not the leading man, but you’re eye-catching enough to form important connections with people who’ll stand up for you when the studio wants someone more traditionally handsome for their next Oscar-bait drama: the kind that Hollywood used to make, until fairly recently. This path was largely unaltered until around fifteen years ago, when a shift started to happen in the mainstream movie business. The Hollywood paymasters shoved real creatives toward the margins and even the smaller movies started to be made by committee. The approach itself wasn’t new but the players were. Marketing executives with an eye on toy markets, merchandising, one-sheets, TV spots and sequels were now sending notes back on scripts – these people had not a clue on earth what components a film needed to be good. They used to come in after a movie was made, with no part played in the creative process, but it all changed and getting great writing onto the big screen suddenly became as easy as pushing water up a hill.

Disillusioned creatives saw this commerce, rather than arts, driven approach becoming the new normal and started to do something drastic and unprecedented – they moved to TV. Before, TV had been the last refuge of the failed movie actor. There’s a lot to be said for a steady paycheck. The first stirrings were seen as the century ended, with the 1999 premieres of both The West Wing on broadcast (the channels everyone gets) and The Sopranos on cable, (which you pay for, in the US model). Bit by bit, the best actors started dropping out of movies and into TV, because that’s where the great dramas were now being made. They ran away from the comic book adaptations, the tent-pole summer blockbusters and the sequels, perhaps indulging in a little voice acting for animations to top up the bank balance. Some rushed straight into TV, while others rushed straight to the stage. A few were clever enough to do everything: take a good part in a small movie for a nice wage when the script was good enough, focus on theatre and help to get plays on not just by starring in them but by producing them, and finally, only when the absolutely perfect part came along, created by none of the established cable networks (operating outside even HBO/AMC/Showtime et al. without any constraints, the newest players are Netflix, Hulu and Amazon: with no track record comes no fear, nor limits on adventure or investment), jump on it and create a career where half the year is spent doing a remarkable TV show and the other half is spent with theatre sawdust in the nostrils. This is how to conduct a career, be in charge of it, while taking or creating the best opportunities. And thus, we come to Kevin Spacey.

Put simply, eleven years ago he opted out of Hollywood, at a time when his star was sky high and $10m a movie was on the table. He saw that great movie drama was in trouble but wasn’t quite ready to be on the small screen. So he moved to London and became the artistic director of the Old Vic Theatre in Waterloo. Many thought this was some vanity project. A chance to use his name to act in a series of revivals and just get as many eyeballs on him as possible. That may be the perception, but the facts don’t bear it out: since 2003, he has directed only two plays and starred in seven (his last being 2011’s acclaimed Richard III, which saw a reunion with Sam Mendes), but has shepherded over forty onto the stage, by focusing his not inconsiderable reserves of personal charm onto fundraising and creative partnerships. While the Old Vic, at nearly 200 years of age, wasn’t quite the busted flush that some of the media suggested pre-Spacey’s arrival, he has turned it into a theatre that can attract the newest and most exciting plays, to rival the National Theatre (which once controlled it). His aim was not just to reinvigorate the place, but also to create a structure and innovative ethos that would allow it to continue long after he abdicated. Next year he will hand over to Matthew Warchus, whose credentials catch the eye; most recently, he directed the magical Matilda musical, which won seven Oliviers and five Tonys last year.

Spacey will do, it’s said, one more onstage appearance at the Old Vic before his tenure ends (and he promises he will come back even after that, London now being his permanent home) but it seemed an irresistible aim to do his first one-man show. I happened to attend on press night, so I’ve been dipping into the reviews, which drip with superlatives. The adjectives are out in force: ferocious, passionate, powerful, spellbinding, mesmerising. It’s all true, and more. As anyone who attends gigs regularly will tell you: proximity is addictive. The Old Vic has been dramatically reconfigured, just for this play, in the round. The main stage has been removed; about 70% of the seats were on one side (the stalls plus the dress and Lilian Baylis circles), then there’s a small square, a cluttered, crumpled office set, with jury-like rows on each side, and then the remainder sit behind – I was four rows from the front in this section, seated on what would usually be the stage. It mattered not that some of the play was spent looking at his rear end, as he lurched like an ageing boxer into the audience’s faces, exhorting the crowd as if they were a jury he had to convince. Instead, it was just overwhelming to be so close to the action. He addressed my section frequently, leaning in to part with a lawyer’s secret like we were all behind a two-way mirror. In the theatre you can often feel preached to, shrunken into the crowd and simply the repository for the performer’s ego. Being confronted by Spacey’s version of legendary litigator Clarence Darrow was like being personally addressed in a courtroom. He drew you in, utterly and completely. The discipline is so very different to TV or film, which can reach you but is nothing like being in the same room as the performer. In this instance, being in the round and a few feet away, the sense of environment was amplified to wonderfully, unbearably intense levels.

Darrow has been called a civil rights lawyer, but this is an oversimplification. He defended murderers threatened with the death penalty to prevent the state from committing another display of dehumanising horror themselves, arguing that mercy is what makes society better, and how revenge will only make us harder people. He proudly saved 102 people from death row. Humanity’s good aims interested him more than America’s often Biblically inspired desire for revenge; he believed in trying to pry out people’s innate goodness. But more than this, his philosophy was to fight for the common man and woman. A full forty years before the turning point of the civil rights battle he lined up behind black defendants faced with all-white juries. The most celebrated case of this type was that of Ossian Sweet, a black doctor who had the temerity to move into a white neighbourhood. His home was surrounded by an angry mob and, as they advanced to his door, a shot was fired that killed one of the invaders. In many US states this would be allowed under the so-called ‘stand your ground’ law, sadly now used to free killers like George Zimmerman. Darrow defended Sweet and, in a landmark case, he was acquitted of murder.

The text of the play itself, written by David W. Rintels (based on the biography Clarence Darrow For The Defense by Irving Stone, who also wrote the famed van Gogh bio Lust For Life) and first performed by Henry Fonda in 1974, is fairly straightforward. It’s an autobiographical run through of Darrow’s most famed cases, after first illuminating his Ohio upbringing, to freethinking parents: his mother talked of suffrage in 1840, no less than 80 years before women gained countrywide voting rights. It briefly covers his move to Chicago, his first marriage, and even a little of the unfounded jury bribery allegations that beset him during the case of the McNamara brothers, who had planted a bomb in the offices of the Los Angeles Times during a labour union dispute: not intending to harm anyone, they had killed 21 newspaper employees; Darrow saved them from the noose. He defended Pennsylvania miners, who were working fourteen hours a day, 365 days a year, against their bosses, arguing for better pay and working conditions. Spacey made the audience gasp with a tale of an 11-year-old child miner who had a leg amputated due to employer negligence: he was manipulative in the way that all great arguers are. A champion of the unions, no doubt the right-wing would today call him a Communist. He never even claimed to be a socialist; he was simply a man who wanted to use his intellect and talents to stand up for the underdog. He was an inspiration to anyone who wants to speak for the vulnerable. He didn’t mind a bit of media-bait either, perhaps best encapsulated in the Scopes ‘monkey’ trial, following a schoolteacher’s prosecution for teaching evolution in the Bible Belt. The play finishes, inevitably, to a coruscating powerhouse denouement on perhaps Darrow’s most famous case, that of Leopold and Loeb, two rich teenagers who killed a 14-year-old boy merely for the experience and excitement, the challenge of getting away with it. This is where the concept of mercy came in, as Darrow fervently believed that we can only move forward as a collective culture when we reject the baser instincts of our human nature. He believed without pause in rehabilitation over retribution as a model for how a civilised society should behave.

Spacey had played Darrow no less than twice before. When pressed, he has said that the first occasion, a 1991 low budget PBS movie, was his favourite filming experience. The second time was in a 2009 Old Vic production of Inherit The Wind, (with the Darrow character alternately named Henry Drummond). He is the fourth fine actor to play the role: after Fonda, Orson Welles took him on in 1959’s Compulsion, a thinly fictionalised account of the Leopold and Loeb trial; perhaps the most famous incarnation was in the film adaptation of Inherit The Wind, with Spencer Tracy’s Oscar nominated version taking the plaudits.

A one-man (or woman) show is not to be trifled with, and few actors on earth could hold the rapt attention of a thousand people the way Spacey does. Once I got over the initial thrill of seeing such a renowned actor in person, and only a few feet away, it was an easy pleasure to get swept away in the invective and the complete command and control he has over an audience. It’s not just his level of stagecraft and experience, which is considerable (I’d seen him once before, unashamedly scene-stealing in The Philadelphia Story in this same venue) – it’s the sheer force of his charismatic presence. This is an actor at his absolute career peak, both in person and on screen. In his other job, House of Cards, he gives you barely a drip of humanity, and yet still you root for his Machiavellian politician. Such is his skill that he can strip away any remaining vestige of humanity, as in Se7en, and leave you disgusted but in awe. He can project a seductive quality, as in LA Confidential, or pathetic desperation, as in American Beauty. He can scenery-chew for a giggle, as in the otherwise unwatchable Superman Returns, or con you completely, in The Usual Suspects. He even stood up to his mentor Jack Lemmon, perhaps the actor he resembles the most in the cinema canon, in Glengarry Glen Ross. During the second half, I heard an anachronistic noise: it became clear that a mobile phone was going off (idiots are present everywhere) and, in character, without breaking a beat, he said ‘If you don’t answer that, I will.’ Everything appears to be effortless, which is as it should be when you work as hard as Spacey does.

The set, beautifully designed by Alan Macdonald as a chaotic office, allowed for lots of fiddling with boxes and papers to show the audience headlines and photos, and the masterful direction by Thea Sharrock simply allowed him to take control and have every audience member hanging on his every word. I can’t think of another actor who could have pulled this off; yes, it was shouty, as he has to be heard in the back rows, but what an exhilarating spectacle. What a privilege to be present at a transformative display of a performer at the height of his powers. It was one of the great nights I’ve had in London.

Perhaps the only cautionary tale is that we should now be able to view Darrow’s humanitarianism as quaint, a relic of a more closed-minded century. Unfortunately, the world is no less right-wing (it just seems like it is because we talk more; activism is higher but pushback is greater) than it was during his heyday. While some progress has been made, governments are more secretive and still as keen to crush uprisings (for example, in the last year 40,000 protestors have been jailed in Egypt, with all forms of protest now banned by a government elected as a result of protests), while citizens are more suspicious, and rightly so given the inroads made on liberties and how much we are spied on daily. The game is rigged, with little advances made in social justice and minority interest groups dominating the conversation (belief in climate change is crazy and anti-business while belief in invisible gods is sky high). What is the internet itself, except a method from which data is collected on behaviours, and how long before it’s yanked under corporate control and net neutrality becomes a thing of the past? Most of the jail populations still come from backgrounds of poverty and poor education, while education funding itself is slashed and healthcare is sold to the highest bidder. He should be a winner on the right side of history, not an anomaly pushing against the tide. A century later, we need fighters like Darrow more than ever.