Sunday, 4 October 2009

Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic

Inherit the Wind is a fictionalised account of the 1925 Scopes Trial in which a schoolteacher is prosecuted for teaching Darwin. It centres around a gladiatorial courtroom battle between acerbic lawyer, Henry Drummond, and lawyer-cum-politician-cum religious propagandist, Matthew Harrison Brady. Kevin Spacey portrays a wily and intellectually agile Drummond. David Troughton delivers a breathy and tense Brady.

The original play was first performed in the McCarthyite era. The themes reach across times. During the course of the trial Drummond makes clear that what he is seeking to establish is not what is 'right' but instead what is 'true.' As such he is positing progress against ignorance. At one point, he refers to general relativity. Brady has stood still whereas Drummond has moved on. They used to have so much in common but now they appear to have little as Drummond humiliates Brady- who in a highly unusual move is called as a witness though he is the prosecuting counsel- on the stand.

Comparisons with To Kill a Mocking Bird are inevitable (and I have written about TKAMB previously.) Where Atticus Finch is concerned about justice and that his kids grow up in a world where there is some sort of notion of right, Drummond is slightly differently focused. His concern is truth. In order for truth to out, people must have freedom to speak out no matter how wrong they may be. His concern is the battle of ideas and progress; laws must not get in the way of that.

Brady is based on William Jennings Bryan, Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson, and populist lawyer and public lecturer. Bryan toured the nation lecturing against the works of Charles Darwin. He also became a vigourous prohibitionist which the play references. In his reactionary disposition and anti-intellectual fervour his descendants abound American politics. They line the streets to protest against healthcare reforms that are in their own interests; they smugly profess their deceitful certainties on rightist TV shows and talk radio; and they fail to engage with anything that may challenge these certainties.

Actually, I am being grossly unfair to Bryan. He comes across a man of populist integrity in a way that Beck, Hannity, Palin, Limbaugh, Coulter etc do not. They appear to be on the make- personally or politically. Bryan was driven, it seems, by some notion of betterment with a degree of personal emotional need. In the play, Brady travels with his mother. It turns out that he just needs some love. But no amount of love can fulfil such a hungry heart. And so it stops.

That ushers in the play's most powerful passage. Drummond's intellectual certainties begin to waver. The man of ideas can never remain still. He reveals an intellectual love for Brady's articulate ignorance. From a man with slightly grating, though admirable, intellectual confidence, doubts begin to set in, humbling him in the process. God or Darwin? The Bible or The Origin of Species? Both books rock the scales.

This production at the Old Vic is stunning. The performances are powerful. The set- which begins at Main Street, Hillsboro, Tennessee- seems to go on as far as the eye can see. When two jurors join the audience we all become part of the drama. The on-stage appearance of a monkey is greeted with gasps of excitement.

The play is not as emotionally wrought or viscerally affecting as To Kill a Mocking Bird. The 'crime' at its centre is not as electrically charged as an alleged rape. Racial justice touches a nerve in a way that intellectual freedom doesn't seem to. We never quite get to emotionally engage with the accused, Bertram Cates. These are observations rather than criticisms. This play is a play for all times. Ignorance rears its head masked in many different guises throughout time. And Spacey v Troughton is just sublime.

Inherit the Wind is on until December 20th at the Old Vic.

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