Kevin Spacey’s eyes glisten as he delivers his valedictory line: “Mercy is the highest attribute of man.” Mine glistened, too. For a moment, the audience knew how a jury in a case presided over by Clarence Darrow must have felt: captivated, moved and above all, persuaded. From this curmudgeonly war horse emerges a conviction as clear and firm as diamond – no wonder Darrow, in his many years defending underdogs, had so much success.
And no wonder Spacey chose this 1974 David W Rintels play for his swansong. After 12 years as Old Vic artistic director, he rounds off his tenure with an indulgent showcase of his considerable talents.
He may have brought Hollywood sparkle to London’s theatreland, but this is an actor deeply in love with the stage. He prowls and dances, addresses single audience members directly, even perching on the knee of one woman.
Spacey revels in the physicality and intimacy of theatre, and when he bows before the inevitable ovation, there is a sense of a love affair coming to an end, a painful tearing away from something that feels so damn good.
The stage is cluttered with dusty artefacts from Darrow’s years fighting the good fight: a desk piled high with papers; framed portraits of clients he represented; an old placard from the Pullman strike. Spacey toys with these props as he guides us on a tour of Darrow’s most dramatic legal victories, and a few still-sore defeats. A proto-Atticus Finch, the real-life Darrow’s probity and oratory helped save over a hundred people from the death penalty in the late 19th and early 20th century.
His is one of two legacies celebrated in this production. The other is Spacey’s, who took over the Old Vic at a nadir, and overcame snobbery and scepticism on his way to turning the theatre into one of the most respected in London. No one can deny the Old Vic he hands over to his successor, Matthew Warchus, is in better shape than the one he took over.
If there is a hint of vanity in his parting one-man showcase, it is more than justified by his performance – and the last 12 years.
CRITICS’ CHOICE: THEATRE
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