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Inherit the Wind

Judith Elliot

Old Vic
Until December 20

This dear old US chestnut derives its title from Proverbs 11:29: 'He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind'. The quotation has an ambiguity otherwise almost entirely lacking in the play - who is it exactly that's troubling his own house? The young teacher who dares to talk about evolution with his class? The population of the small dusty Bible-belt town who believe he is corrupting their children? The local hell-fire preacher who fans the flames of their bigotry? Or that pesky Darwin himself?

Inherit the Wind has not been much revived in this country since its premiere in 1955. But in the USA it's considered a play for all seasons, like The Crucible. It's a thinly fictionalised account of the notorious Scopes trial of 1925, where not just the young schoolteacher  but the very Constitution of the United States were weighed in the balance, with two of the country's leading attorneys on opposing sides. William Jennings Bryan, a thrice-failed presidential candidate, appeared for the prosecution, while the legendary Clarence Darrow appeared for the defence. The authors of Inherit the Wind changed their names to Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond. The real trial attracted journalists from all over the world, led by another American legend, HL Mencken, who appears in the stage version as EK Hornbeck.

And on stage it's an epic production. The Old Vic's director, Trevor Nunn, marshals his forces, well-used to assembling unusually large groups of actors for his famous productions of great US musicals, such as Oklahoma and Carousel. In fact this is almost Inherit the Wind: The musical, as his townsfolk punctuate the action with old-time gospel songs, beautifully sung and often bringing  relief from rather too much creaky dialogue.

 The play stands or falls on the performances of the two attorneys, here played by David Troughton as Brady and Kevin Spacey as Drummond. The latter role with its bursts of soaring oratory mixed with low-down cunning and lots of good old-fashioned barnstorming, has attracted some of the greatest US stars, including Spencer Tracey and Jack Lemmon, so expectations of Spacey were high. Perhaps mine were too high - both performances seemed competent rather than great. Spacey's characterisation seemed slightly too calculated,  over-reliant on an assembly of gestures and expressions and a bow-legged walk that John Wayne would have been proud of. Passion and conviction seemed lacking on both sides of the courtroom, with Troughton sailing through his unexpected appearance in the witness chair (another ingenious trick by the wily Drummond) without so much as breaking sweat - and this in a courtroom where the temperature is supposed to be 97 degrees, and in an interrogation of his literal belief in every word of the Bible that is supposed to result in Brady's subsequent death from a heart attack. Other performances too failed to convince:  Ken Bones as the Bible-thumping Rev. Jeremiah Brown appears deeply uncomfortable in his hell-fire preaching scene. And why is the wonderful Janine Duvitski so wasted as one of the town wives, with only a few inconsequential lines?  

Has this revival of Inherit the Wind been worthwhile?  It has let London audiences see a play not often performed here, and reminds us that evolution/creationism debate continues in many parts of the US. And of course it marks Darwin's anniversary year. But as I sat through the lengthy set speeches, I wondered if the UK has swung in the other direction and the villains were no longer the Bible-belt fundamentalists but the atheist fundamentalists whose voices are so stridently heard in our media. Is it their representatives who are leading the witch-hunt against religious belief with all the fervour of Brady in Inherit the Wind or Bryan in the real-life Scopes trial? And no Darrow for the defence either. 

Judith Elliot