Inherit the Wind
Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee
New Vic Theatre Company
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
The McCarthy “witch-hunt” era of US politics led to Arthur Miller writing one of the world’s greatest plays, The Crucible. But Miller’s tragedy was not the only great work that emanated from that time: Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee’s Inherit the Wind stands alongside Miller’s opus as a work of importance and relevance.
While The Crucible is continually produced all over the world, Inherit the Wind rarely has the dust blown off it.
The main problem for any theatre trying to recreate the scandal caused by a schoolteacher’s exposition of Darwin’s theory of evolution to his class is the size of the cast. The script mentions more than 30 characters—a huge undertaking for any production company.
The New Vic overcomes the difficulty by bringing in community actors from its Borderlines programme for disadvantaged people and its youth theatre. They join 16 professional actors on the theatre-in-the-round’s stage.
The result is a gripping examination of how religious fanaticism can stifle healthy debate and tear communities apart.
Inherit the Wind was inspired by events in Tennessee in 1925: the Butler Act banned the teaching of evolution in all the state’s educational institutions.
At that time, the American civil liberties union wanted to challenge the new law and recruited high-school science teacher John Scopes to take part in a test case. The so-called Scopes “Monkey” Trial lasted only a week but the reverberations are still being felt 90 years later.
Lawrence and Lee set Inherit the Wind in the town of Hillsboro, a fiercely religious community where determined, free-thinking Bertram Cates (an excellent Oliver Farnworth) is about to face trial.
It is such a heavyweight case that presidential candidate Matthew Harrison Brady is brought in to prosecute while his former friend and colleague Henry Drummond—“an agent of darkness”—has the almost impossible task of defending Cates.
The second half of Inherit the Wind is a courtroom drama rivalling even Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men Yet Inherit the Wind is in some ways more profound as it dissects the effect Cates’s trial has on every inhabitant of Hillsboro.
The cut and thrust between the two lawyers is evident even before the trial starts as they try to score early successes in the selection of members of the jury.
Tom Hodgkins is commendably pious and zealous as Brady, single-minded in his belief that God created the world in seven days. Hugh Simon is ingeniously argumentative as his nemesis Drummond, unwavering in his defence of humanity’s right to think for itself.
The odds are stacked against Cates and Drummond in the trial which is conducted by a severely biased judge (an impressive David Bowen).
There is an unexpected twist before the trial ends with a prophetic statement that the argument of creationism versus evolutionism will continue.
The whole cast give sterling performances, particularly Oliver J Hembrough as cynical reporter E K Hornbeck and Hannah Edwards as Rachel Brown, a teacher and vicar’s daughter who just wishes the controversy could be resolved quickly and reasonably.
The strength of the large cast is in showing how puritanical and fiery the people of Hillsboro are: they loudly and almost violently rail against anyone or anything which is opposed to their own ingrained, fervent views.
Peter Leslie Wild directs with enthusiasm and passion. If I had to pick one fault with the production, it is that Wild does not allow his actors to get the full effects of several poignant moments before the action moves on quickly.
There is no doubt that Inherit the Wind is a challenging play; the New Vic comes through the trial with its outstanding reputation for quality ensemble pieces intact.
Reviewer: Steve Orme