Kevin Spacey braved the lashing rain and a theatregoer who had not turned their mobile off to dazzle the audience at London’s Old Vic Theatre with his one-man play Clarence Darrow, in last night’s preview.
The House of Cards actor is playing in a two-and-a-bit week run at the venue (where he will soon hand over the artistic director reins after ten years) in order to fit in filming for the third series of the Netflix drama. But even this shortish appearance in a revival of David W Rintels’ 1974 classic is worth it.
He received a standing ovation and even one shout of “genius” as he took his bow after a gruelling two hours playing the progressive lawyer who lived from 1857 until 1938 and fought tirelessly for workers’ rights and against the death penalty which he hated. (Darrow actually saved 102 lives from judicial killing, something he considered his greatest achievement).
The man clearly means a lot to Spacey who has played him in the PBS film Darrow and in fictionalised form in the 2009 revival of Lee and Lawrence’s play Inherit the Wind. But it also means the Hollywood star knows his way around the character, who pads up and down the stage – a beautiful recreation of his messy office – holding forth on his life and successes, often with a shouty roar (well, he does have to make himself heard).
It takes quite a performer to pull this off – and to make the details of minimum hours for mid-western labourers compelling – but Spacey does it with energy, panache and spellbinding charisma. Darrow’s most celebrated cases, like his successful defence of the family of the black doctor Ossian Sweet from whose house a member of a racist mob is shot, are obviously more dramatic, but each one is conveyed with passion and dramatic intensity.
Oddly for such a remarkable man, he never seems vain and, even if his only flaw is an apparent eye for the ladies, the clarity and warmth of the man shines through.
Spacey also showed he knows how to deal with the rogue mobile phone which can blight many a theatregoers’ experience. When its ringing mid-way through his performance last night seemed like it wouldn’t stop, he broke off from his delivery to to say: “If you don’t answer it, I will” – before falling back entirely into character. It was an interjection which brought the house down with laughter – and showed Spacey’s Hollywood class.