Director Timothy Sheader on the ‘flash mob reading’ of a classic
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
To Kill A Mockingbird features high in the list of many a book lover’s top ten, as evidenced by the recent furore triggered by the erroneous rumour it might be removed from the school syllabus.
Artistic director of London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Timothy Sheader, who brings this best loved classic to the Norwich Theatre Royal stage from September 22-27, has returned to author Harper Lee’s book to cast fresh light on the endearing humanity held in its pages.
Essentially, he says, his production is different because “we are not putting the play on stage, we are putting the book on stage. We revisited the book in a new and original way. It is all about Harper Lee’s words.”
His interpretation enjoyed a highly successful and critically-acclaimed run during 2013 in Regent’s Park, and a return to the park venue is planned for late August into September before embarking on a UK tour with Norwich its second port of call.
Casting for the tour will be announced in due course and further dates for 2015 are on the cards.
Adapted from the novel for the stage by Christopher Sergel, this memorable production scooped the WhatsOnStage Award for Best Play Revival for 2013, with Telegraph reviewer Charles Spencer declaring it to be “a production of tremendous heart and emotional depth”. “If you have tears, prepare to shed them at this superb adaptation of Harper Lee’s great book,” he said.
Winning plaudits from critics and audiences alike, it is the Open Air Theatre’s most successful play and was Critic’s Choice in the Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard, Times, Guardian, Metro and Time Out with reviewers calling it “heart-shakingly sincere” and an “enchanting heartfelt adaptation”.
As Timothy said, it was “a no-brainer” to bring the production out on tour to reach a wider audience: “It’s not because of ego, but the desire for more people to experience Harper Lee’s novel. The novel is the central experience and the actors carry that experience to the audience.
“They read from the book on stage in their own accents, in modern dress, as if it is a family member sharing the book with you – in a way, it is a ‘flash mob reading’. We’re experiencing the novel together, just like sitting down and reading a book with your own family. There’s an intimacy to it and there is a surprise right from the very beginning.
“We do go into the scenes and the actors become the characters – but they retain their own accents because when we read ourselves we don’t read in an American accent. We all read in our own accents.”
While the staging for the production will vary slightly from the way it is presented in Regent’s Park, which has its own live and unique flavour because of the open air element, the design for the touring production will draw in and envelop the audience as the actors tell the powerful story of young children growing up in the racially divided America of the Great Depression.
The theme of the novel deals with the trial of a black man accused of raping a white woman in a small-town community. The man is defended by compassionate and thoroughly decent lawyer Atticus Finch whose feisty daughter Scout is on the cusp of adulthood.
“I like to challenge the audience’s imagination. It’s not lights go down, you lean back and watch,” Timothy said. “I invite the audience to use their imaginations. I invite them to play.”
He believes it is the universality of author Harper Lee’s characters which has given the novel, which he so clearly loves, such enduring appeal. It has certainly proved its popularity across every art form, from the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel to the film adaptation in 1962 which won three Oscars out of the eight it was nominated.
When Timothy first read it as a child it “had a profound effect on me”. “The beginning of this production is my own experience. I followed Scout and saw it through her eyes. When I came to read it again, I read it through a parent’s eyes, observing my children and how they observed the world so profoundly differently. When you re-experience it as an adult, you hear the book very differently.”
As the trial unfolds on stage, so do the characters’ preconceptions and Scout’s prejudicial fears, especially about the reclusive Boo Radley, are challenged and finally pushed aside.
Timothy said: “Harper Lee’s novels are universal, like the ideas of Shakespeare. This is why To Kill A Mockingbird is studied the world over. Without it, my life would not be as rich.”
Timothy Sheader was talking to Judy Foster, Norwich Theatre Royal Communications Officer and reproduced here by kind permission.
Book tickets here for the Norwich Theatre Royal production.