"I've always thought lawyers like to say more than is absolutely necessary." This show, Kevin Spacey's last at the Old Vic and first as solo performer, casts him as a garrolous attorney and folk hero of declining years, remembering a career of arguing of horse traders and social justice for thirty-odd years either side of 1900. Thoroughly argued, it's still a slender proposition to fill the main house of the Old Vic, and Spacey's performance doesn’t quite make a case for it.
Clarence Darrow is an all-American role lawyer in an old-fashioned mould: champion of the poor, maverick, womaniser, bootstrap all-round good guy. It's easy to see why Spacey feels drawn to it as inexorably as businessmen of a certain age are drawn to sing "My Way" at karaoke. He’ll step down from his position in early 2014 as artistic director – this feels like a slow-sailing, flamboyant swan song.
He’s no stranger to the role. He played Darrow at the Old Vic in Trevor Nunn’s adaptation of the 1960 courtroom drama Inherit The Wind in 2009, and in an eponymous PBS movie. Here, Darrow’s judge, jury, and trembling clients must be encompassed by the gestures of his tremulous hands, as he relives his cases in an imaginary courtroom. The most famous of these is the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial – not the historical anomaly you might hope, but the first in a long, scarcely evolving series of controversies about the teaching of Darwinism in schools. But David W. Rintels’ rather workmanlike narrative resists the temptation to sprint right up to Darrow’s highest heights of philosophical rhetoric. Instead, he starts with a trudge through the story of his parents – even holding up two outsized photos of them for added didactic value – followed by the early days of his career making out documents for horse traders and struggling to make an impression in rural Ohio.
Thea Sharrock’s direction is similarly patient. Our first glimpse of Kevin Spacey is his feet as he rummaged under his desk – he shuffles around and rearranges paper in dusty contrast to the passionate rhetoric we know to expect. The Old Vic has learnt new(ish) tricks, thanks to a huge reshuffle that puts half the audience behind the theatre’s proscenium arch and a few more at the sides to play in the round; here, this staging has no amphitheatre grandeur. Instead, the house lights are all but up, and Spacey holds court in a kind of chummy "all among friends here" atmosphere, shaking audience members' hands, or squashing between two seats to expound on his womanising reputation at closer quarters.
His performance is expansive, warm and full of wit. Clarence Darrow is eminently quotable, delivering gems like "I have never killed any one, but I have read some obituary notices with great satisfaction." Spacey makes him good company – an ideal guest from a carefully composed fantasy dinner party. But there's also a kind of clunky unknowingness to Rintels' script. It's hard to tell how much irony is meant when Darrow talks about starting to believe that any boy in the United States could become President, just after telling a story of the horrendously ingrained racism of 1920s Chicago. His womanising is handled oddly, in a kind of bluff dismissal that we're given little help interpreting. And no other flaws materialise in this agnostic hagiography of an all-American saint.
At the 1924 trial of Leopold and Loeb, two teenage murderers, Darrow gave a twelve hour, rambling oration against not just their indictment, but about the death penalty itself, bringing in science, philosophy, and even nascent Freudian psychology. Trimming his abundant autobiographical works and summary energies into a neat 85-minute is a task beyond even the brightest trainee lawyer. This unambitious dramatisation covers Darrow's high points, without structuring them into something elegant, or profound – a roughly hewn chunk of a fascinating life.