Last night's insistent rain oppressed London. But theatregoers were not deterred from stepping through the drizzle and into what is fast becoming the hottest seat in town: Trevor Nunn's magnificent production of Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic.
The moment the curtain lifts, dreary London disappears and the audience is transported to the sweltering Deep South. The proud town of Hillsboro is preparing for the arrival of Matthew Harrison Brady, the national political figure and lawyer sent to prosecute a local schoolteacher for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution. And so, the drama unfolds. Through Nunn's gentle direction, the audience is introduced to an impressive ensemble, from the village idiot to the local reverend and his daughter, who is also dating the defendant, and finally to Henry Drummond, the curious defence lawyer. Drummond is tackled with a stoop, a limp and a grouchy voice by Kevin Spacey, the not-so-secret ingredient behind the Old Vic's revival. It is an impressive performance and, especially with the subtlety of delivery in his character's final revelation, one that steals the show.
That is not to say that Drummond transcends the drama, for it is in his on-stage sparring and camaraderie with Brady that the play ignites. David Troughton, firing out Brady's lines with authority and a charismatic breathing impediment, hits Brady on the nose. He has a fine line to tread between being the fool, the source of so much humour, and a credible, formidable opponent in the moral debate. Without a Brady who is intense, intelligent and absurd, Inherit the Wind falters. Somehow, Troughton pulls it off.
But the key genius in all of this is the text itself and, moreover, the Old Vic's decision to stage it in 2009. Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that a 1955 play that fictionalises a 1925 trial about a book written in the middle of the nineteenth century is surely out of date. But the book in question is not just any book: it is Darwin's On the Origin of Species. And the issue on trial is not, as Drummond points out, whether humans evolved or were created; it is whether a man has the freedom of thought to decide for himself. Unfortunately, that question is not only pertinent in 2009 but will resonate for years to come. Bravo, Old Vic.