I recently saw one of the finest, if not the finest, pieces of acting I have ever seen in my entire life!
It was Kevin Spacey playing Clarence Darrow at the Old Vic Theatre in London in the play of the same name.
I have always admired Kevin Spacey as an actor, ever since I first saw him in such amazing films as ‘The Usual Suspects’, ‘Seven’, ‘LA Confidential and ‘Swimming with Sharks’. At the moment, I’m completely hooked watching him play the evil, manipulative American politician Frank Underwood in the Netflix series ‘House of Cards’. He is without doubt one of the greatest actors of our time.
My wife and I were both really excited at the prospect of seeing him perform live on stage and we couldn’t wait to see this play.
The Old Vic theatre is ‘in the round’ which makes for a cosy, intimate experience when you’re sitting in the stalls as we were, although I found it difficult at times to follow the captions and look at the stage at the same time. The hearing loop was excellent too, which is something that I am still getting used to.
This is a one-character play, so Kevin Spacey played the role of Clarence Darrow on his own for a full 90 minutes. His acting was fantastic! He owned the stage the entire time. I found myself being absolutely magnetised by his presence that night.
In real life Clarence Darrow was one of the greatest civil liberties lawyers in American history. In his forty-year career, he defended people who were poor, black and otherwise discriminated against by the American legal system in the early part of the twentieth century. He defended the underdog and people who couldn’t even afford to pay his legal fees, so he didn’t charge them. He was very courageous and had a strong sense of doing what he believed was right to defend innocent people.
In his career, he managed to save 110 people from the gallows for being wrongly accused of murder. There was only one person he didn’t manage to save early on in his career, which he deeply regretted.
Kevin Spacey stood on the stage as the older Clarence Darrow preparing to pack up his office and retire. He was looking back on his life and career, telling it in his own words in a very humble but convincing way. It was totally mesmerising to watch him perform so passionately and emotionally just a few feet away from me. He walked around the stage and down the aisles, engaging with and bringing the audience with him as he talked about his most memorable cases and his personal life.
It must be so difficult to act on your own like that all the time and yet keep the audience so gripped. He seemed to totally involve us all in the story as he was telling it. I thought it was really clever the way he used tricks like speaking to empty chairs on the stage as if he were re-enacting his famous courtroom scenes and cross-questioning key witnesses and defendants in the trials and holding up evidence.
Through his acting we got a glimpse of how eloquent, but humble, Clarence Darrow was, and how he managed to win over trial juries and judges by a combination of logic and his strong sense of right and wrong. Apparently, in real life he managed to reduce some trial judges to tears with his passionate pleas for them to save his defendants’ lives.
He was also courageous because he wasn’t afraid of standing up for what he believed in, even when this made him deeply unpopular. For instance, Spacey as Darrow told the audience about when he was asked to defend the McNamara brothers in 1911 by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). They had been charged with dynamiting the offices of the Los Angeles Times building a year before, which resulted in the deaths of twenty people. This trial attracted a lot of public attention, with the AFL setting up a defence fund from donations to defend the brothers and many people convinced of their innocence.
But before the trial, when Darrow was going through the evidence, he discovered that the McNamara brothers were, in fact, guilty. He described how he didn’t know what to do as he was in such a moral dilemma. He eventually decided that the only right thing to do was to change their plea to guilty in order to spare the defendants’ lives and to plea for a custodial sentence instead. In the end, one of the brothers was imprisoned for fifteen years and the other got a life sentence.
Because of the change in plea, the ALF and other unions turned against Darrow, convinced that he had sold them out. He was also accused of bribing a member of the jury in the trial, which he denied strongly, but he faced a lengthy trial to defend himself of the bribery charge and although the jury did not find him guilty, he was forced to give up practising as a lawyer in California. It was only several years later that he decided to set up a practice again in another state, and he carried on defending people for many more years.
Kevin Spacey’s performance was totally spellbinding. At the end the entire audience was on its feet applauding him and giving him a standing ovation. I have never seen such an audience reception in the theatre. After ten years of working as Artistic Director at the Old Vic, this is Spacey’s last season there, so I felt truly privileged to see him in one of his last performances.
I also came away feeling truly inspired by the legendary Clarence Darrow, who I had never heard of before, but I was really glad that I had discovered him. I know that times have changed since his day, but I wish that there were more people like him today who will always stand up for what they believe is right and fair, people who are never afraid to defend the poor, the vulnerable, the sick and disabled people in our society, particularly in this age of austerity and putting yourself first. People like him make our society a much fairer, better place.