Another Covid casualty now revived, Aaron Sorkin’s much anticipated production of To Kill a Mockingbird which opened on Broadway in 2018 may have had to exchange original British lead Rhys Ifans for the equally impressive Rafe Spall, but otherwise emerges relatively unscathed from its two year delay. At almost three hours, it is a long night but one that largely captures the moral, political and community complexities that have made Harper Lee’s novel a schoolchild favourite. Naturally, Sorkin’s adaptation is at its best in the tense courtroom scenes that pit an innocent man against a very crooked system, even if elsewhere the show tips into twee.
Sorkin, of course, is especially associated with those courtroom scenes and intellectually dense rat-a-tat dialogue that has made him a master of confrontation between smart, largely middle class, people fighting against organisational corruption and injustice. From the excellent A Few Good Men (Tom Cruise vs the US Marines), to Molly’s Game (Jessica Chastain vs the FBI), The Trial of the Chicago Seven (Eddie Redmayne vs the police) to TV series like The Newsroom (Jeff Daniels vs the US Media and Government). Sorkin has made a career from the David against Goliath plights of ordinary citizens pitted against Establishment systems.
To Kill a Mockingbird is, then, a natural fit for the writer which, for the most part, Sorkin takes advantage of, showcasing the racial and political divisions in a small town that result in social stigma and recrimination. But this is not the first version of the novel to grace the stage and a 2015 production starring Robert Sean Leonard in the title role transferred from Regent’s Park to the Barbican, providing a benchmark against which this latest production is found slightly wanting. And although it is not always reasonable to compare, judging each on its own terms, exploring the story treatments and staging decisions across different approaches can explain how these support or hinder the development of the plot and the sometimes troublesome translation from page to stage.
Sorkin’s production is centered on three characters sharing narrator duties. Scout, Harper Lee’s original storyteller, Jem her older brother and Dill the friend they meet only for a summer. And for Sorkin this serves a couple of distinct purposes; first it offers different perspectives on the same event and, in theory at least, presents the audience with three ways into this story and its wider effects on the Finch family who each react and respond according to their age and involvement in the community. Second, structurally within the play it solves some directorial challenges in staging the story by reducing the burden on a single actor to carry all the activities as well as smoothing the transitions for characters appearing in subsequent scenes.
But this is also a place where Sorkin’s version struggles to find independence between different narrative voices, so in lifting text from the novel’s single point of view and distributing it to three people, they still speak as though they are the same person and not in a way that adds to the drama. Instead, Scout, Jem and Dill are mostly in harmony, commenting on events and guiding the audience from scene to scene with very little reflection on how their own perspectives should actually differ. And while Sorkin may draw them out through dramatic exchanges in conversation with other characters, that distinction in viewpoint and understanding isn’t brought through into their narrator duties. It feels like a missed opportunity to better explore authorial voice and the contradictions and differences in the priorities of children of various ages – most notably perhaps that Jem would challenge Atticus more while Scout still sees him as an unblenched hero.
As a theatrical device, single and multiple narrators are very common and, as seen recently with Under Milk Wood and Our Town, it can be an effective means of creating the bustle of larger communities as well as offering a wistful tone that uses language to conjure an imagined scene which the audience must suspend their disbelief to see. Here, though, it has a slightly alienating quality, pulling the viewer in and out of the story to add context or speed through time. And across three hours it is a device that begins to wear thin, a Jackanory retelling speaking down to the audience with endless explanations that contrast sharply with the dramatic tension and the more engaging approach to scene writing where Sorkin’s dialogue flies and jabs as we have come to expect. The balance has fallen too far into a novelistic telling rather than a theatrical staging which does sap the energy.
Timothy Sheader’s approach for Regent’s Park and the Barbican had a similar problem, using multiple narrators to convey the story in which approaches to reading the text were variable, creating a similar issue with the tone in which scenic and contextual information was conveyed. Sorkin may have reduced the number of narrators but this new version still doesn’t strike the right balance between omniscient author and dramatically-staged scenes.
Courtroom fireworks are what Sorkin does best and his version of To Kill a Mockingbird excels in the strength and potency of these exchanges, distilling the novel’s concern with social justice but also Sorkin’s own interest in the specificity of legal arguments and the rhetorical theatricality of their presentation. The white saviour construct feels more dubious than it did even in 2015, but Sorkin’s management of witness testimony and cross-examination, the presentation of evidence and skill of lawyers to construct, twist and persuade through argument is exceptionally well managed.
Sorkin too has a firm grasp of the shape and careful utilisation of drama across these dialogue-heavy interactions and writes slow crescendos particularly brilliantly as combinations of information gain their own momentum. Employing staggered turning points, dramatic defeats, cliff-hangers and thundering attacks, Sorkin has a masterful control over the unfolding courthouse scenes, maintaining anticipation and interest throughout as though unfolding military strategies in which there is much to grip an audience as the contenders effectively draw battle lines.
The questioning of the two key prosecution witnesses – Bob and Mayella Ewell – is particularly effective as Sorkin’s Atticus lays traps, provokes reactions and, as all true mavericks should, pushes at the boundaries of appropriate conduct to get to the truth. These sections prove crucial for the audience, a chance to see through the mendacity of the accusers but also for Sorkin to showcase the failures in legal process and deep-rooted community bigotry that will prevail regardless. That the writer is able to so clearly delineate these closely integrated subtexts is fascinating and well achieved, leaving the audience to wonder what to do when the law fails and justice is compromised.
Sheader’s production was perhaps less explosive but gave the courtroom scenes a world-weary fatalism that was quite different to Sorkin’s approach, though equally valid. A more muted style with a strong moral belief in doing the right thing for the sake of doing it, the Regent’s Park / Barbican show may have had a different courtroom dynamic but these are scenes that, across the two productions, are clearly the easiest to stage and stage well.
Running at the Gielgud Theatre, Bartlett Sher’s staging is a little cumbersome, requiring the wheeling on and off of bits of set including court seats, doorways and furniture to manage the many quick-fire changes of location. It does tend to slow the action – potentially necessitating even more narration to cover the resets – as we wait for Atticus’s house to rise up from the floor so the many scenes on the porch and inside can take place. Cutting between the courtroom and the Finch home becomes clunky as the pace of the story quickens in the second Act with the effort and sound of set being trundled into place and back again becoming a distraction.
Jon Bauser’s approach for Regent’s Park and the Barbican used chalk lines to delineate the town of Maycomb which became increasingly eroded and blurred by the ensemble (who were permanently on stage) as they stepped into scenes. Its very simplicity made it all the more powerful, eschewing the need for elaborate scenery that Sher’s production gets bogged down with, and both dramatically and practically was all the better for it.
Rafe Spall is, however, an excellent Finch, a man who believes wholeheartedly in goodness and decency to all, a virtue he tries to instill in his children. Sorkin deliberately toys with the presentation of Atticus across the production, placing a silent, remote and thoughtful figure on stage at first and, seen through the eyes of his daughter at least, a quietly heroic icon whose admirable decency and unflappable honesty and integrity are something that Spall captures exactly. Yet, as events take their sadly inevitable course, Sorkin asks questions about Atticus as a father and community member that suggest failings in his unbiased liberality and Spall investigates the possibility that Atticus must face himself in the aftermath of the trial, exploring whether there is systemic prejudice in his own behaviour which is so ingrained as to go almost unnoticed. Is fighting in the Courtroom enough and should Atticus be braver in taking a stand in other areas of his life where the rules of engagement are less clear?
Gwyneth Keyworth plays Scout as notably older than the six-year-old of the book and here seems around twice that. Still a tomboy eager to learn and ask questions, Keyworth’s very likeable performance is the heart of the piece, the innocence of Scout an important contrast with the poisonous attitudes of the Maycomb townspeople. Harry Reading has a little less to work with as Jem but gives a sense of a boy slightly closer to the adult world than his sister and far more conscious of their failings while David Moorst’s Dill probably plays as the youngest of the three in which Moorst has some nicely timed comic moments. They don’t really make the narrative duties decidedly their own but that’s a failing of the script rather than the performances.
Among the adults, Patrick O’Kane is particularly notable as the noxious Bob Ewell, a man with an imposing presence and dark soul whose viciousness seems to inspire loyalty for a time while Poppy Lee Friar is very good as the fragile Mayella whose brittle, cowed surface still brings a shocking desire for self-protection over decent humanity. Pamela Nomvete adds real gravitas as Calpurnia whose relationship with Atticus proves crucial to the re-examination that Sorkin brings to the final section of the play while Jude Owusu is full of dignity as the bewildered Tom.
There is much to admire in Sorkin’s writing and in the development of some complex character studies that try to get under the surface of the novel’s adult characters and the deeply ingrained prejudice of this Alabama town. That people can become so enmeshed in lies and suspicions that their only option is not only to go on with them but to cling even tighter feels pertinent, and while the staging and narrative structure are too heavy-handed, Sorkin has much to say about the broken relationship between integrity and justice.
To Kill a Mockingbird is at the Gielgud Theatre until 13 August with tickets from £27.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog