Writer: Harper Lee
Adaptor: Christopher Sergel
Director: Timothy Sheader
Reviewer: Joan Phillips
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is as close to a perfect novel as you are going to get. In fact, in 2006 it was named by British librarians as the one book ahead of the Bible they recommend adults to read before they die. So it is welcome to see Timothy Sheader’s production for Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre touring with Christopher Sergel’s stage adaptation bringing this great story to a live audience once again.
In fact, the idea of sharing the story with the audience is one of the key elements to distinguish this production. Recognising the way the opening scenes of the original book were written, a narration by the main character Scout, this production aims to share the story with us in the same personal way. Each of the cast members read from time to time as themselves, direct from the book, as they introduce us to key parts of Scout’s story. Copies of the book are left scattered across the stage throughout the evening as a reminder of the sheer power and thrill of reading and sharing a story aloud.
There are so many themes running through this book as relevant today as they were to the civil rights era emerging in the US around the time of its publication, and the racism in the southern states of 1930’s depression America when the book was set. But the beauty of the book, retained in this stage version, is the innocence of the children and how they view the adults running the world around them. “It is as simple as black and white”, says Atticus Finch as part of his closing speech in the trial. You can hardly improve on Lee’s original words as this short phrase so easily sums up so much of what the children see but the adults can’t.
What comes over so strongly in Sheader’s production is how the father manages to protect Jem and Scout’s childhood and keeps them feeling secure and safe among their “decent” Christian friends and neighbours – the very same people the children see behaving with such bigotry and racism and very nearly complicit in a mob lynching. Atticus has two battles to fight: one in the courtroom to defend Tom Robinson from false allegations, the other to prevent fear of their own community corrupting his children’s innocence and security. Atticus, a true hero in any era, does it through love, understanding and avoiding prejudice and ignorance. Scout is constantly reminded by her father, “You never really understand a person…until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it”. Daniel Betts nails the weary melancholy of the widower lawyer and father but doesn’t quite capture the commanding moral authority that keeps this man going though his loneliest moments.
The set, by Jon Bausor, is dominated by a large tree to right of centre. From here Scout, Jem and Dill hang from a tyre, spy on Boo Radley and play their games. Ingeniously, the town of Maycomb is laid out on stage by chalk lines outlining streets and buildings drawn by the cast. The tree hides the gifts mysteriously left for the children; it conceals Boo from the glare of intrusion at the story’s alarming climax. And throughout, it is a constant reminder of how close Tom Robinson is to being strung up by the mob.
This evening’s performance features Ava Potter, Arthur Franks and Connor Brundish as Scout, Jem and Dill respectively. All admirably navigate their way through the big rôles and accent demands. Ava, in particular, manages the difficult problem of balancing the precociousness and innocence of the young Scout. Ryan Pope made a great, dislikeable Bob Ewell.
If there is an issue with this production, it is that the live reading doesn’t always work as a shared story experience. The cast coming in and out of character to read from their books doesn’t always connect personally and sometimes feels like an interruption. They make the stage a little over busy at times and risk disrupting the rhythm. But it is good to see a new version of this genuinely iconic and gripping story.
Runs until Sat 18th April 2015 as part of a UK tour | Photo: Johan Persson