With most monologues it takes less than an hour before fatigue sets in for both the actor and the audience. This one lasts for almost two hours (with interval) and leaves us wishing that it could have been four. David W Rintels’ play first appeared on Broadway in 1974 and in the West End in the following year, performed on both occasions by Henry Fonda. Rintels was present at this performance, taking applause at the end. Based upon Clarence Darrow for the Defense by Irving Stone, the play gives an account of the life and extraordinary career of the legendary American lawyer, defender of the weak and sometimes the strong, but never the strong against the weak. Darrow (1857-1938) was a lifelong opponent of capital punishment and his success rate in defending against it was 102 out of 102, he was a pioneer of progressive liberal thinking and a towering court room orator. The play uses many extracts from Darrow’s own speeches and mingles them with anecdotes about his most famous trials and his private life. He defended Leopold and Loeb (subjects of the play/film Rope), Ossian Sweet, in which he took a defiant stand against racism, and John T Scopes in the infamous “Scopes Monkey” trial, which also inspired a play, Inherit the Wind, performed at this theatre in 2009. In that production, Kevin Spacey played a character taken to be Darrow and, going from memory, he assumes the same characterisation here – the same voice, stoop, faltering walk – and becomes a man roughly in his 60s/70s, looking back on his life from the time when commitment to his work wrecked his first marriage to old age when he is content to spend all day in his favourite armchair. The set is an old-fashioned office, with files and papers scattered untidily around the desk and floor, Darrow moving them around, finding documents of particular interest and sharing their contents with the audience. The programme tells us that this is the first time that Spacey has performed in the round or in a one-character play, but he meets both challenges effortlessly, addressing members of the audience as if a jury and frequently walking amongst us, making impassioned pleas for justice. Whilst we savour the privilege of witnessing one of the greatest actors on the planet in full flow, we should not allow this to overshadow the quality of the writing. There is not a second of this production that is not totally engrossing.
Performance date: 30 May 2014