I was not one of those children who, willingly or otherwise, read To Kill A Mockingbird whilst at school. I’d heard of it, of course, and knew friends who had read it; but it was never part of my literature syllabus and, at that age, for my reading leisure, if it wasn’t a whodunit or a play I wasn’t interested. Unlike Mrs Chrisparkle, who read the book willingly at a tender age and impressed her schoolteachers with her as yet never before seen keenness. I’m not sure those teachers ever got a second chance to be impressed, so I hope they appreciated the experience. For years Mrs C had been on at me to read it, and for years I said yes I must, placing it in the “pending without intention” desk tray in my brain. But then one day, not that long ago, I relented, and discovered for myself what a gripping and emotional read it is.
The last time we saw cast members reading from an eponymous book on stage was in Gatz, the experimental reading/acting production of the Great Gatsby that takes an entire day to achieve. I loved its riskiness, its innovative approach, its willingness to turn established art forms on their heads; as you know, gentle reader, I much prefer a creative, experimental failure to a lazy success. But, in the final analysis, Gatz was quite boring really, and proved that a book is a book and a play is a play. So when the ensemble for To Kill A Mockingbird emerged from the Leicester Curve stalls, clambered up onto the stage and portentously raised and lowered their paperback copies of the book (each one a different edition, which is a nice touch), I had a slight feeling of foreboding. However, there was no need for alarm. They don’t read the entire book, they take it in turns to read individual passages, so that you get a dozen different voices (male and female) each speaking as though they were Scout, the six year old narrator of this story of growing up set against the injustice of racial discrimination in 1960s Alabama. Each passage will introduce an acted scene, so it becomes an alternating sequence of acting and reading, which keeps it feeling very fresh.
It wasn’t long into the play when the relatively well-to-do matinee audience at the Curve gasped audibly as Scout used the “n” word in her conversation. The “n” word appears quite a few times actually, in this 1970 adaptation of the book by Christopher Sergel. I’m not sure how you could express the discrimination of the time without using it, but it is interesting to reflect that there hasn’t been a drive to modernise some of the language for the 2014 audience. But there you are, you have been warned.
I’m sure you know the story – and if you don’t, and intend to see the play, then why should I spoil it for you? Suffice to know that Scout and Jem are the children of Atticus Finch, lawyer, and they and their friend Dill play, run errands, make discoveries and do all the things that kids do in their neighbourhood, as they learn from first-hand experience what separates right from wrong. Atticus’ watchword is equality, and he encourages the children to think the same way. He proves his sense of equality by becoming the Defence Lawyer for black farmworker Tom Robinson in his trial for raping the white woman Mayella Ewell, a decision that doesn’t go down too well in some sectors of Maycomb County. The trial is a cathartic moment for the community as a whole, for the protagonists in the case, and for Atticus’ family and friends. Scout, Jem and Dill get to see their community through different eyes as they start to leave their childhood behind. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
This lucid, eloquent production was originally produced by the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. By using a set that resembles a garden, with chalk lines drawn on the floor to demarcate the various areas of the town, this transfer brings the outside indoors with remarkable ease and effectiveness. Those members of the ensemble who are not in any particular scene sit at the sides of the stage following the action in their paperbacks. The whole impression is one of breathing dramatic life into the written word, whilst still having absolute respect for its original format.
There are three young actors each playing the roles of Scout, Jem and Dill at different performances. Obviously I can only speak for the ones we saw, but they were amazing. Arthur Franks’ Jem has all the confidence of the older sibling, and therefore further to fall when Atticus corrects his behaviour; and his idealistic expectation of what the jury will decide, as well as his overall view on life is heart-warming to see. Connor Brundish gives a terrifically impish performance as the socially advanced yet often unsure Dill, bringing out the comic elements of the role very effectively. But Ava Potter’s Scout is a performance of true delight; remarkably assured, full of attitude, very funny, very moving – quite brilliant. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a child actor receive a standing ovation before.
Daniel Betts as Atticus is the only adult performer to retain his own role throughout and not be part of the ensemble, and it works very well as a device to set him apart from the rest of the community, and make him more of a loner. He looks and behaves just like how you would imagine Atticus to be; kindly, wise, learned, and authoritative but with humility. It’s a great performance. The rest of the ensemble work really well together but each actor also brings terrific insight and identity to their own minor characters. David Carlyle was superb as the Prosecuting Lawyer, Mr Gilmer; slightly foppish, posing with his cigarette, bringing an effeteness to the otherwise unsophisticated Maycomb County. There was no doubting his belligerence towards the helpless Tom Robinson, played with simplicity and great emotion by Zackary Momoh. There’s no way he would have had the physical dexterity to carry out that attack. Susan Lawson-Reynolds brought huge heart to the character of Calpurnia, helping Atticus instil decency and discipline in the children, whilst still retaining her sense of fun. Natalie Grady was a wonderfully straight-talking no-nonsense Miss Maudie, Geoff Aymer a very kindly but splendidly ineffectual Reverend Sykes, Ryan Pope a despicably low-life Bob Ewell, and Victoria Bewick a memorably tormented Mayella, lashing out using attack as her best form of defence. But each member of the ensemble made a great contribution to the overall atmosphere of community life and clarity of narration; and Phil King punctuated the proceedings with some very enjoyable and wistful incidental music.
This is an excellent production that brought a tear to Mrs C’s eye (not mine, I must be more hard-hearted) and really tells the story well. It works as a play in its own right, but I have to admit, primarily it made me want to go back and read the book again. This production is in the early stages of a very lengthy tour that goes right round to next summer, visiting Cardiff, High Wycombe, Cambridge, Birmingham, Bath, Sheffield, Chichester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Nottingham, Dartford, Milton Keynes, Southampton, Leeds, Plymouth, Newcastle, Cheltenham, Richmond and Salford before ending up at the Barbican next July. I told you it was an intensive tour! An accomplished production suitable for all the family but that pulls no punches and tells it how it is. I predict very good business for these theatres, so get booking now!