Inherit The Wind – New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
Writer: Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee
Director: Peter Leslie Wild
Reviewer: Mel Duncan
‘Whar’re yuh skeered of? You was a worm once!’
A child’s jibe cuts straight to the heart of the matter in this play. In a Southern state fundamentalist community, it is ill advised to flaunt the notion of Darwinism. John Butler’s 1925 bill clearly stated that it is illegal ‘to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals.’ Bertram Cates finds himself in breach of this statute in a play loosely based onthe events of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ trial.
Almost ninety years on, the debate seems far detached from our current existence here in Britain. Yet Peter Leslie Wild, in his commentary on the play, brings an alarming fact to the fore. Only two years ago, three state-funded free schools were openly teaching creationism, in contravention to the Governmental guidelines. This play clearly has more relevance than meets the eye.
Upon entering the theatre, the audience are transported immediately to a courtroom. Seated in the round, they are part of the public gallery, thanks to a very clever set designed by Dawn Allsopp. Her attention to detail is strikingly beautiful, the simplistic set, incorporating a natural colour palette and materials evoking the tired, worn feel of Hillsboro. Beautifully tailored costumes (no mean feat for such a large cast!), which add to the performance without drawing attention to them, complete the design. The faint sound of crickets can be heard, and ceiling fans rotate ominously slowly overhead.
Inherit the Wind opens with a simple Revivalist hymn, the soulful voice of Jessica Dyas floating over her accompanist, Angela Bain, on banjo. The company enter gradually and the hymn gathers support. Community is at the heart of this play – thematically, in the organisation of the project, and also in the direction in which Wild has taken the play. His skilful blend of 16 professional and 24 community actors is to be credited. The play unfolds with the community very much at the heart of the action, weaving through the public welcome of revered prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady, to a terrifying prayer meeting, and beyond into the rigours of a courtroom battle, throughout acting with the pack mentality of a close-knit community.
The scenes are interspersed with further Revivalist hymns, performed both vocally and instrumentally. Malcolm Newton’s arrangements feature some fantastically rich harmonies – it is a shame not to hear more of these! Adam Barlow’s violin edges in a mournful tone, as the trial begins to reach a conclusion.
Hannah Edwards gives a beautifully innocent performance as Rachel Brown, the daughter of Reverend Jeremiah Brown. Rachel’s vain efforts to reconcile differences between the two important men in her life are portrayed beautifully by Edwards, and she is every bit as captivating to watch when not the focus of a scene. Llewy Hammersly also shines as young Howard, the boy who first brings the creationist teaching debate to our attention.
Oliver J Hembrough and Steven Elliot both give assured performances as Hornbeck and Rev Brown. However it is the legal forces which provide the wow factor. A completely symbiotic performance from Tom Hodgkins and Hugh Simon – Hodgkins large, childlike and irrational portrayal of Brady a skilful foil for Simon’s calm and collected Drummond. Simon’s minimal portrayal in terms of movement, and skilled timing when delivering lines ensures that this performance is not quickly forgotten. These two forces dominate the second act, which may be responsible for the notable increase in pace and energy as the trial reaches a climax.
Peter Leslie Wild commands a diverse and skilled cast through an intricate play with grace and eloquence. A polished performance which was very enjoyable and engaging.
Photo: Joel Chester Fildes | Runs until 14th June