Amid recent controversy concerning the discovery of Harper Lee’s long lost manuscript, I leapt at the opportunity to review the novelist’s first, and only published work, on the Theatre Royal stage. Director Timothy Sheader’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is everything the avid reader can hope for as it brings to life the disturbing truth of racial discrimination in the Deep South, despite Atticus’ (Daniel Betts) profound assertion that in a courtroom all men are equal. As the perpetrators of the play’s real crime close in on its victim, the audience is offered a hideous reminder of America’s prejudiced history.
Through a child’s eyes the audience is made to encounter the oppressive force of small town racism during some of the worst years of The Great Depression. Potter, Price and Brundish deserve special credit for their ability to sensitively manage the demands placed upon them by the themes of this period whilst also interjecting the play with moments of heart-warming humour and childish innocence. It is impossible not to fall in love with the charm of Dill as he proudly walks about the stage like a young gentleman in his braces and shiny brown sandals, beaming at those around him and introducing himself in a distinctive Southern lilt. Scout, too, with her daring contradictions and bossy nature – constantly putting the boys in their place – dominates the stage with her outspoken tomboyish personality.
Potter, Price and Brundish deserve special credit for their ability to sensitively manage the demands placed upon them by the themes of this period.
Sheader’s Brechtian approach at first filled me with apprehension. Surprisingly, Brecht’s techniques have tastefully been incorporated to add to the feelings of claustrophobia and small town oppression which are integral to the play. The actors, when not on stage multi-role playing or contributing to the ongoing narration, sit on either side of the stage, facing each other, almost in the wings, neutrally flicking the through the pages of their edition of the novel. The varied dialects – I heard everything from Scottish to Northern to Standard English – and neutral dress of the narrators demonstrates them inhabiting the role of the reader.
The most gripping moment of the play comes directly after the interval as the audience is returned to the centre of the action: the beginning of Tom Robinson’s trial. At this point the play finally slows its pace, the second half being more enjoyable than the first because it feels more loyal to the style of the novel. The scenes on stage are painfully drawn out as the audience waits with bated breath for a verdict they already know – having read the book or not! Tom’s (Zackary Momoh) desperate outburst following his rigorous cross-examination by the prosecution results in him crying out that he ran because he was ‘scared to face up to [a crime he] didn’t do’. The words resonate as silence falls and the futility of Tom’s plea becomes all too clear. The emotive power of the courtroom is furthered by the closing speech of Atticus as he directs his soliloquy to the audience who also double as the play’s jury.
The scenes on stage are painfully drawn out as the audience waits with bated breath for a verdict they already know – having read the book or not!
Although simplistic, the set is one of the most remarkable features of the play. Dominated by a single tree, constantly climbed on by the children and home to the presents offered by Boo Radley (Christopher Akrill), its darker symbolism is made apparent when a mob enter part way through the play carrying a noose. It is a reminder of the country’s cruel history of lynching. The high metal sheets which form a backdrop and further encase the actors on stage help to create an image of the stifling heat of the Deep South as warm lighting filters through them, turning to a symbolic sickly green at the beginning of the second half.
Although simplistic, the set is one of the most remarkable features of the play
Exploiting some of the most disturbing stereotypes of the south in its characterisation and expertly crafted by director Timothy Sheader, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ is a must-see for those who believe it is impossible to recreate the magic of a novel on stage.