Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Inherit The Wind”, which is at The New Vic in Newcastle Under Lyme until Sat 14 June 2014
Having completed his revolutionary thesis on evolutionary matters, Shrewsbury’s Charles Darwin then sat on the script. Concerned about the ructions “The Origin of Species” might cause in the Christian community (which included his Potteries wife Emma Wedgwood), he delayed publication until he was finally forced into print by an ambitious rival.
Darwin was right to be cautious. The destructive forces he feared all came to a head in 1925 in the Tennessee Bible belt when a biology teacher was tried in court for teaching his theory. The poor man was slung in jail (admittedly the coolest place in town) pending a hearing which brought the public in by the trainload and broke broadcasting history. And whilst the American playwrights Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee fictionalise some of the facts, their play is starkly faithful to the core conflicts and intemperate passions of what became the infamous “Monkey” Trail.
This is courtroom drama at its most conniving. To reproduce the teeming fervour of the time, director Peter Leslie Wild packs his circular stage with over 30 highly animated actors who praise the Lord and castigate the heathens for all they’re worth. He uses hymnals, Hallelujahs, surround sound and mounting frenzy to create a tense cauldron of concentration. I was gripped throughout, indignant at the injustices and reeling at the ridiculousness of the bare-faced fundamentalism.
There are powerful performances to admire. The prosecutor Colonel Brady is given an air of complete arrogance by Tom Hodgkins; the kind of blind confidence unique to men who fail to question their own tenets. With florid face and flyaway hair, he’s like a dodgy politician at election time feeding the populace his popular spiel. He smarmily coins the damning phrase “evil-ution”, and tells the townsfolk that God made the World at 9am on a Thursday morning because he knows they can’t comprehend the alternative. It was a finely tuned performance that made my skin creep.
His adversary in court is the calculatingly reasonable Drummond, played with suitable professional prowess by the hangdog Hugh Simon. His performance is the still centre of sanity in the play. Like Darwin, Drummond sees ‘Creation’ as a long miracle (not just Seven Days) and plays the long game in court to get to the truth. It’s a beautifully understated unfolding….calm and collected, with a well concealed killer punch.
The two men are perfectly cast, as is Hannah Edwards who has established herself as a New Vic regular with a string of memorable performances. Here she plays a teaching colleague of the accused man, though the relationship is clearly blossoming into something more. Rachel is just the sort of person Darwin sought to protect; a clergy daughter denounced by her father and torn in two by her bigoted upbringing and her love for a more logical man. The pain on her face, when ensnared in the witness box by the blustering Brady, is such a haunting moment Darwin might have wished he’d never put pen to paper.
There’s always fun to be had by running rings round The Bible and the cast play the laughs very well. In this context, the concept of ‘begetting’ raises humorous hackles and the very mention of the word ‘sex’ causes havoc. So there is plenty of sugar on the pill. But the message about the dangers of zealotry still rings loud today. This is still an important, arresting play and this new production is excellent in every respect.
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Image by Joel Chester Fildes