The main causes of crime, said the famous American defence lawyer Darrow, are “Poverty, ignorance, hard luck and, generally, youth”. A century later, as Kevin Spacey speaks them in the Old Vic’s round arena, the words fall sharp as ever on the city sprawling around us. So do his strictures against the tyrant’s favourite crime, “conspiracy”, and his rage at racism. David Rintels‘ biographical one-man play may be about long-ago murders and workers’ rights in the USA, but even within our shores there are enough echoes and universals to thrill. Across a murderous world of mad laws and extreme punishments, they resonate still more.

And it is indeed a thrilling evening. Darrow is most famous globally for two cases. One was saving the teenage killers Leopold and Loeb from the gallows in 1924, commuting it to life imprisonemnt. It was one of his most controversial defences, based wholly on a passionate lifelong opposition to the death penalty. The other, more comically, was his victory in the 1925 “Scopes Monkey trial” where with deadly ridicule he helped to bring down the Butler Act, which had forbidden the teaching of Darwinian evolution theory in state schools.

But these – and his shiveringly tremendous defence of a negro family besieged by a racist mob – come in the second part. Before that we learn of his beginnings, his abolitionist and suffragist parents and the dramatic fascination of a law career. It took him first into battles over the working conditions of Pennsylvania miners, some mere children, who asked only a twelve-hour limit to their day and a bare wage. He nearly torpedoed his career, though, when his union allies turned against him. He was prosecuted himself, seemingly on a faked charge, after he persuaded the MacNamara bombers to plead guilty to save their lives rather than attempt an impossible defence and risk their necks.
Spacey has played a role based on Darrow here before, in Inherit The Wind. Here he gives us the old man alone: emphatic and confidential, angry and dryly rueful, self-accusing and self-aggrandizing in turn. Here’s a shining rhetorician haunted by the horror of the rope, a dissenter believing in no deity but human decency and mercy in a messy world. In a lovely aside he wanders the aisles explaining how to pick a jury: on no account accept any “Presbyterian with a tightly rolled umbrella”, and always trust Methodists over Baptists. Apparently “they’re nearer to the soil”.

Spacey admits that he has never before done a solo play, and never performed in the round. Under Thea Sharrock’s direction, though, quite apart from the power of the piece he gives us (assisted only briefly by sound-effects) one of the most impressive of technical performances. He is audible, whether in rant or quiet nuance; gives every angle of seating a chance, his shoulders almost as expressive as his face. As intimate with the audience as Darrow with jurors, he is also creditably “on” his props. Which is no mean feat, as he riffles apparently absently through chaotic boxes and drawers to pull out the right photograph bang on cue, or move a chair or stool to represent an invisible witness as he re-enacts interrogations.

It will be one of Kevin Spacey’s last performances in this famous theatre, which his determination and persistence brought back to shining life. A modest short run, yet this and the memory of his Richard III should make us grateful enough. America has lent us, these past 11 years, a magnificent throwback to the days of the great actor-managers.

box office 0844 871 7628 to 15 June Sponsor: Bank of America Merrill Lynch
In-the-round sponsor: theCQSspace
rating: five  5 Meece Rating

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