I’m not a believer in this play
Posted: 13 Oct 2009 @ 00:00
Rachel Boulding finds great talent waste don monkey business
IN THE approach to the Darwin anniversary year, both Kevin Spacey and Trevor Nunn found themselves thinking about the same play at the same time. The Hollywood star-turned-theatrical-impresario and the distinguished director both recalled the 1955 play Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, memorably filmed in 1960 with Spencer Tracy.
They confess to being drawn to the barnstorming role of Henry Drummond, the defence lawyer in a fictionalised but largely accurate presentation of the celebrated Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 in Tennessee. The names have been changed, but many of the details remain the same. A young schoolteacher, John Scopes (Bertram Cates in the play), agreed to stand trial in a test case on the charge of teaching evolutionary theory, in violation of a new law.
Standing against Cates and Drummond is Matthew Harrison Brady (based on the real-life William Jennings Bryan), a former presidential candidate and biblical fundamentalist, who is backed by most of the small town where the trial takes place.
Brilliantly directed with assured rhythm and pace by Trevor Nunn, the play offered Kevin Spacey ample opportunity to steal the night with wit and charm as Drummond. Some moving ensemble scenes gave David Troughton more limited room to shine as Brady, but he still managed to invest the part with dogged and even tender persistence.
Yet it was a shame to see their huge talents wasted on such an emaciated drama. This was To Kill a Mockingbird territory: a brave liberal lawyer standing in a sweaty Southern courtroom against a bigoted community. Sadly,however, the similarities ended there: the narrow-mindedness of the portrayal matched that of the people it depicted. The irony seemed lost that a play about the need to keep an open mind was itself so blinkered.
There was no range of voices or layering of views, and little real intellectual debate. Without exception, the Christians were paranoid, smug, self-righteous, and anxious about any questioning of religious belief. They supported their minister’s telling the parents of a dead boy that he would be tormented in hell because he had not been baptised. They were haunted by the fear that any probing of faithwould lead to its withering and destruction.
There was no attempt to move beyond this unrelenting travesty of Christianity. The only positive contribution from the people of faith was some sweet singing.
Some of this was understandable, given the play’s origins in the McCarthyite era, looking back 30 years earlier to a community closed off in many ways and possessed by a form of mass hysteria. But the drama was a long way from The Crucible. The knockabout anti-Christian stuff — and there were some wonderful flashes of humour — might possibly be shocking still in pockets of the American South, but it was hardly radical or edgy for the South Bank.
It could serve as a reminder of the dangers of neglecting intellectual inquiry and of the fear-bound religiosity that refuses to question faith. Yet the crude stereotypes and lack of debate offered few other insights into the current creationist revival or 21st-century British issues. Like Richard Dawkins’s attacks on a species of religion unrecognisable to most English Christians, the play struck out bravely only at straw men.
Inherit the Wind has become a staple in the United States — an old warhorse of a play, lumbering its way into the repertory. But sadly, unlike hoary classics such as An Inspector Calls, it veers towards the irredeemable. Whereas J. B. Priestley’s melodrama, written ten years before Inherit the Wind and also looking back 30 years, was resurrected in a revelatory production by Stephen Daldry in 1992 (currently re-revived in London), this creaks too much.
The devout Lilian Baylis must have been spinning in her grave at various doings in the sacred space of her beloved Old Vic over the years. This can only have increased her velocity.
At the Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, London SE1, until 20 December. Box office 0844 871 7628.