Tag Archives: Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird – Gielgud Theatre

To Kill a Mockingbird - Gielgud Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

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


To Kill a Mockingbird – Barbican

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.


%d bloggers like this: