At the bar of the Old Vic theatre on Wednesday night, Kevin Spacey and his Inherit the Wind costar David Troughton were holding court and discussing the spirits that still haunt British theatre, quite unaware of the dead-cat drama playing out overseas.
"People are always asking me, where is the new work?" Spacey said. "Where are the Trevor Griffiths and Barrie Keeffes, those people writing political plays as a response to Thatcher and Thatcherism in the 1980s?"
"She is still here!" his costar, the British actor David Troughton, interrupted with passion, almost jumping from his seat. "She pervades this country like some awful miasma. That is why we're in this fix! We will not get rid of Thatcherism for another 50 years."
Little did they know that across the Atlantic, Canada's transport minister John Baird was laying "Thatcher" to rest in a text message that sent an uproar through the government. In this case, Thatcher was Baird's cat and not the Iron Lady, who continues to cling tenaciously to the realm of the living. Had Troughton known of the "Thatcher has died" text he might have keeled over with excitement (the British press certainly had fun with it today, with the Evening Standard dubbing the deceased feline "Moggy Thatcher.")
Politics (and religion) are at the heart of the Old Vic's hit staging of Inherit the Wind, a fictionalized 1955 retelling of the Scopes Monkey Trial. Astonishingly, the play has only been staged once in Britain, in a small production in 1960 - but perhaps that's because of its epic size. As Spacey says, describing the cast, "we're 49 and a monkey." (The monkey is genius by the way, and deserves to be signing autographs at the stage door and should take up any Broadway offers that come along, provided there are ripe bananas in the rider.)
Spacey is grey-haired and hunched as Henry Drummond (based on Clarence Darrow) and Troughton poignantly portrays the blowhard Matthew Harrison Brady (a thinly veiled William Jennings Bryan). At the centre of the play is the trial of a young Tennessee schoolteacher accused of teaching Darwin's theory of evolution - although written 54 years ago, it's alarmingly relevant, given the hold that religion still has on education in the United States. As an American reporter said to the actors, "to the Europeans, it must seem totally nuts."
Well yes … and no, Troughton said. "As a British person I always think the Americans are very big on religion in their politics. Until Mr. Blair, that is, who became Roman Catholic after going to war in Iraq."
Let it never be said that actors are Labour-loving luvvies. They'll give it to any politician with both hands -- but they might have to put their drink down first.