Theatre: A modern witch hunt

Inherit The Wind King's Head, London
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The Independent Culture
THE RECENT dumbfounding reports that the Board of Education in the State of Kansas has voted to stop teaching evolutionary theory gives a worrying tremor of topicality to Timothy Childs's enjoyable King's Head revival of Inherit the Wind. This Fifties play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E Lee is based on the real-life 1925 trial of a young Tennessee schoolteacher. The aim of the original piece was to preach the need for a tolerant society that respects divergent points of view in the face of the McCarthy witch-hunts for Communists. Now, it's as though Arthur Miller's The Crucible were to be revived to coincide with a renewed outbreak of vicious paranoid delusions about witches.

All quivering boater-hatted, banner-waving excitement as they form a reception committee to greet the big-shot Bible-thumping prosecutor, Childs's large cast create a lively sense of a tight provincial community both flattered and scandalised to be in the national spotlight. The prejudice the defence was up against is also powerfully communicated in a prayer meeting held on the eve of the trial and announced with a comic contempt for impartiality at the jury vetting. The cast are whipped by the preacher into an ecstasy of Creationist fervour. "Curse the sinner," shrieked a crone, pointing a bony finger directly at your blushing critic.

But the play also shows that this was a trial where outside influence and media interest began to weaken, for good and ill, a community's power to decide its own affairs. A primitive microphone is set up in the court so that the proceedings can be broadcast nationally, and the town is flooded by reporters including a celebrated cynical journalist (John Warnaby) based on HL Mencken. Indeed, both the principle attorneys are star imports. Shamelessly populist with his cheesy, crowd-pleasing grins, George Sewell's splendid Brady is a famous political leader who has failed in three attempts at the presidency. The defence is led by Larry Lamb's clever and humane Drummond, a fictionalised version of the US's renowned trial lawyer Clarence Darrow.

Since right lies predominantly with one side, this is not the tensest or most searching moral drama. But there is pleasure in seeing Drummond, denied his own expert witnesses, calling the chief prosecutor to the stand and, while quizzing him on his Bible-expertise, exposing the ludicrous incoherence of his beliefs. A play that once again puts the present on trial.


To 2 Oct, 0171-226 1916