On 14th July Harper Lee publishes Go Set a Watchman possibly the most eagerly anticipated sequel of the year if not the century (although technically not a real sequel as it was written before the original). To Kill a Mockingbird has been a staple of school curricula for years and one of those books that most people seem to have read in GCSE English classes. Considered a major American classic the affection for its characters has been cemented partially by the fact that Lee never published anything else. So much like pop culture’s obsession with Marilyn, Elvis and James Dean, there’s a sense of unfinished business about it, and of Lee’s unrealised potential as an author, that has captivated readers for decades.
I should probably admit then, that all this has rather passed me by, and I read it for the first time only a few weeks before seeing this stage adaptation at the Barbican – you know how it is, so many books, so little time. But I’m glad I finally got round to it and could instantly see why it’s held in such high esteem, so I could approach this play with the story and the language fresh in my mind. This production was first staged in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago and returns to London after a UK tour with most of the original cast still intact. For those who haven’t read it, To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of Scout and her brother Jem in a small southern American town in the 1930s, covering a year in which their father, the local lawyer, defends a black labourer accused of raping a white woman. Through the eyes of the children we learn about the town and its people, their reactions to these events and how its violent outcomes divide a community.
There is really only one significant misfire in this production but it is one that is obvious from the beginning – the use of changing narrators, drawn from the cast and each holding a different copy of the book, to read out passages from the story to the audience. I can see that they are trying to make points about the universality of the text, how the book has affected people all over the world, and how Scout has become a symbol of the audience’s perspective, but really it just feels a bit daft. Part of the problem is the varying quality of the reading, some of it is incredibly patronising as though the audience is made up of 6 year olds, and some actors just seem to have difficulty reading aloud in a way that feels natural. Depending on how cynical you are, and I am, it’s also a bit cheesy – plus it might have been more meaningful to have one narrator, potentially an older version of Scout, recalling events (as Lee’s sequel is about to do).
Aside from that this is actually a very good representation of the book which manages to evoke both the atmosphere and tone very nicely, despite its move from an outdoor to indoor venue. Most impressive are the children portraying Scout, Jem and Dill; now it can go either way with child actors, most of the ones who appear in films for example are awkward and let’s face it annoying, but it’s hard not to be thoroughly impressed at how good they are in this production, and in some scenes actually better than adult cast members. It’s a changing group of youngsters but on the night I went Ava Potter played Scout and was the perfect mix of tomboyish bravado and devotion to her father, much as you would have imagined her in the novel; Arthur Franks as Jem and Connor Brundish as Dill are good foils coping impressively with the darker elements and timing the comedy well too.
Robert Sean Leonard has quite big shoes to fill as Atticus Finch, especially as the vast majority of the audience will be mentally comparing him to Gregory Peck’s film version. And he’s extremely good at conveying the calm stoicism of the lawyer thrust into the town’s spotlight with the thankless job of defending Tom. There is both an element of world-weariness in Leonard’s portrayal but mixed with a fundamental certainty in the rights of the law and of the basic application of common humanity to all which Atticus so strongly believes – a nice balance of accepting inevitably failure but going ahead anyway because it is the right thing to do. Leonard also brings a tenderness to Atticus’s role as a father who although upstanding and authoritative clearly adores his children. It’s a restrained but appropriate performance which anchors the production.
Most impressive is Zackary Momoh as Tom, falsely accused of a hideous crime he knows is only going to end one way. Momoh’s fatalistic resignation to this is heart-breaking to watch and his testimony during the courtroom scene is tense and full of pathos, as well as underlining Tom’s role in the social order. Momoh gives us a nice feeling of a decent man being respectful to the people and due process he is part of, but understandably bewildered and afraid, given his social position, at having to mount a defence.
The rest of the cast play multiple parts and jump in and out of being the narrator using costume which breaks the tone a little. In the courtroom scene it was disappointing to see Bob and Mayella Ewell returning to the side instead of reacting to what Tom was saying but really all eyes are on Momoh in that electrifying scene. Director Timothy Sheader has done well to transfer this indoors without losing too much of the small town rural atmosphere that Regent’s Park could provide, although perhaps a tad more of the stifling heat needs to come through to emphasise the growing tension in the town and for Atticus as the case plays out.
Jon Bausor’s design is interesting, with the town of Maycomb drawn onto the stage in chalk indicating where all the houses are in relation to one another. Otherwise it’s fairly minimal and there’s some nice inferences to be drawn from the blurring and messing of chalk lines as the actors’ feet scrape them away, all but eroding the town. The publicity poster contains a tree with a tyre hanging from it which is on stage throughout to reiterate the rites of passage move from childish games to adult problems, which is all nicely meaningful. There are some corrugated burned iron panels all around the edge which were a little unclear – representing the slums maybe? – but only came into their own when lit during the courtroom scene. Otherwise they had too much of the modern urban city about them.
To Kill a Mockingbird is a welcome addition to the Barbican’s summer programme and a great opportunity for those of us that missed it in Regent’s Park the other year. As Harper Lee publishes the sequel, it will create renewed interest and speculation about the original novel which should have audiences clamouring to see this adaptation. Whatever happens in the new book it is bound to cast fresh light on this classic American text so this production frankly could not be more timely.
To Kill a Mockingbird is at the Barbican until 25 July. Tickets start at £19 in the Gallery.