I am not a natural theatre goer because I struggle to suspend disbelief – no matter how stellar the performance, I find it hard to overcome an awareness of my surroundings and the knowledge that the stage contains people pretending to be somebody else (a rather facetious definition of acting, I realise). I love to watch dance at the theatre, am engrossed by it but I do struggle with drama. On Monday night though, I felt the same joy, pleasure and despair as everybody else in the theatre when I had the privilege of watching ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’, the new production directed by Timothy Sheader which has garnered excellent reviews to date. In fact, it was Tuesday afternoon before I could really organise my thoughts so affected was I by this production.
Director Timothy Sheader, who presented this most loved of books at London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre for the second summer running (it opened in 2013 to critical acclaim and sell-out audiences), has taken the production out on the road from September with Norwich the second stop on a national tour. Adapted by Christopher Sergel from Harper Lee’s novel, this is an innovative staging of a story of racial inequality and lost innocence in America’s Deep South during the Great Depression and first published in 1960 – the novel still sells over 750,000 copies a year today. It has achieved popularity across every art form, from the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning book to the film adaptation in 1962 which won three Oscars out of the eight it was nominated.
From its opening moment, ‘Mockingbird’ retains the child at the centre- from our own childhood relationship with this most famous of books to the children from whose perspective the narrative unfolds. The cast emerge from the audience, reading from their own copies of the novel, each edition with its different jacket design underpinning the fact that the story belongs to many generations. The childlike drawing of a neighbourhood map on the stage with chalk, referencing the maps at the start of many famous children’s books- Winnie The Pooh, Milly Molly Mandy and Harold and His Purple Crayon is another whimsical touch for the mental maps and psychogeography of a town will be very different for a child. The swirl of chalk rising in the stage lights, the yellow cast of the light itself mimicking a torpid dusty Southern summer all added to the languorous atmosphere- the dog days of summer bringing additional violence and intolerance to an already intolerant place.
There was dramatic contrast between the playful innocence and good sense of the child characters, Scout played by the accomplished Ava Potter who had the audience in the palm of her hand from the word go, Dill (Connor Brundish) , an imaginative incomer to the town and Arthur Franks as Jem, older brother to Scout, trying to negotiate childish concerns with a new found adolescent awareness of nuance. Not once did we see any slippage into stage school-isms and the lack of self consciousness and realistic depiction of the kinetic nature of childhood was impressive.
The deathly silence in the theatre auditorium was testimony to the engrossing and heartbreaking courtroom second act where Zachary Momoh as Tom Robinson broke our hearts with his bewildered acceptance of his fate. The rising anger of the audience, with our benefit of hindsight of the evils of segregation and Jim Crow Laws was palpable.
So often I end up conflicted about the depictions of well loved characters on stage and in film, they jar with the images conjured up by my own imagination, often ones I have held for many years. Daniel Betts however, is Atticus come to life as was Simon Gregor as the wicked Bob Ewell- played drunk and semi sober and played very well- it is so hard to do a convincing stage drunk and Gregor pulled it off. Victoria Ewick as Mayella Ewell was in turn defiant, knowing, broken and confused, twisting her legs and feet around themselves as her court testimony in turn twisted itself into knots.
I have no issue with the employment of British regional accents in the narrative sections as the world does not need yet another badly acted Southern cadence although Southern rhythms, turns of phrase- ‘Killt’ ‘Y’all’ simply do not work in regional British. However the use of a more authentic accent was employed and in the main they pulled it off to my relief- at least to my English ears it didn’t grate.
The pain and pleasure of this communal experience, sharing a love of the book and its characters and a deep anger at the ugly history of such a beautiful part of the world will stay with me for a long time.