Tag Archives: Jude Owusu

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


Shakespeare reFASHIONed: Much Ado About Nothing – Selfridges

shakespeare-refashioned

Much Ado About Nothing is such a summer favourite and so frequently performed that you might feel you’ve seen it all too many times before. You know the plot so well that you anticipate every twist and turn before they happen, look out for the milestone moments and find yourself zoning out during the no longer quite so hilarious distractions and diversions of the Watch which just prolongs the resolution of the central love stories and evil machinations of Don John. Like A Midsummer Night’s Dream it’s too frequent repetition by multiple companies in mainstream theatre and the fringe has become a burden, dulling the edges of one of Shakespeare’s finest comedies.

Yet the announcement that innovative theatre company The Faction was about to put on a slick 90 minute performance in a pop-up theatre in Selfridges had me instantly looking for tickets.  This youthful troupe has quite an impressive reputation and I’ve professionally reviewed their work at the New Diorama several times, enjoying their novel approach and application of wide-ranging technique to add insight to established classics. At the start of this year their Richard III was so impressive it was clear they were had solidified their place as the best performers of Shakespeare on the fringe, with a show that allowed its leading character to only show his physical deformity when his self-belief was challenged and at all other times the audience saw Richard as he saw himself – a super-human. It showed an understanding of the text and its central character that was both inventive and yet perfectly in tune with the tone of the original work, and it meant that any production by The Faction  is well worth a look.

On Selfridges Lower Ground Floor is the reFASHIONed theatre, which uses a catwalk-style traverse stage through the centre of the small room with the audience facing each other, as the actors appear from around the auditorium. As with most Faction productions, this version of Much Ado is simply staged with minimal set and props but a touch of modern glamour is added with coloured light panels along the stage and its pillars, as well as the integration of video screens that give this fresh adaptation a claustrophobic feel that emphasises the several instance of spying and deception in the text.

Typically for this company, the interpretation has a very young and vibrant feel to it, not just in the drastically reduced run time but also in the very nice staging of the early masked ball, which here becomes a frenzy of lights and bodies to a thumping sound track. With many of the older characters hoofed-out of this production or reduced to sparse video messages, we’re left largely with a group of youngsters desperate to party – the men because they’ve returned from war craving female company and escape; the women because they’ve been trapped in the villa for months without any potential husbands to flirt with. Much hilarity is drawn from the vibrant drunken revelry that ensues as romantic marriage deals are secured as easily as seedy bunk-ups.

And this slick enthusiasm is a constant feature of the show which keeps the action moving at an impressive pace without the distraction of the subplots and characters. But, having seen several Faction productions there was an edge missing from this one. One of the features of this company is their inventive application of physical theatre to reinforce a fresh interpretation of classic texts, which works to such impressive effect in the bare black box of the New Diorama. In their Richard III earlier this year, they created two thrones from the bodies of eight cast members, or in their Joan-of Arc last year choreographed some brutal fight scenes in slow motion that added considerably to the drama. Here in what seems a bigger budget approach to Much Ado, it has lost some of that Faction physical flair which if you’ve never seen them before you won’t notice but for regulars is a sadly absent hallmarks.

The performances are impressive and convincing, though, and the success of any version of this play hinges on the central pairing of Beatrice and Benedick, here played with verve by Alison O’Donnell and Daniel Boyd. Benedick in particular is too often portrayed as a swaggering hero, but Boyd nicely subverts our expectation by making him a slightly unsure of himself hipster in a patterned shirt and too short trousers. Boyd’s funniest moments reveal his dithering heart, implying his failure to pursue Beatrice has more to do with his lack of self-confidence and fear than lack of interest in her.

Brimming with self-confidence is O’Donnell’s contrasting Beatrice, constantly bursting with witty put-downs and slights against her sparring partner. She’s full of energy and certainty, that occasionally borders on fishwifey, but there’s a nice brittleness to her that melds well with Boyd’s quieter Benedick, and gives the pairing fresh appeal. The comparative lovers Hero and Claudio are somewhat thankless parts, they provide the backbone of the story but both are rather insipid which makes it difficult for the actors to inject much animation into that relationship. While they may command less attention than the leads, you don’t hate them for their blandness and Lowri Izzard and Harry Lister Smith make a sweet pairing.

In an interesting take the role of Leonato is perfectly transposed into Leonata and played brilliantly by Caroline Langrishe, which adds a second gender dimension to the play, as a house entirely composed of women is ‘invaded’ by an army of men. Langrishe absolutely anchors the production as the dignified host, adding considerable gravitas to the otherwise fledgling cast. Equally interesting is Faction veteran Christopher Hughes as Don John a nicely malevolent presence casting a shadow over the otherwise sunny proceedings, but adding greater depth to this role of jealous brother than often seen, and with Jude Owusu’s engaging Don Pedro, you want these fractious siblings to be given more stage time.

There’s much to admire in this pared-down version of Much Ado About Nothing and its modern twist combined with an unusual setting should certainly attract new audiences in this Shakespeare anniversary year. The Faction has taken a fresh approach to a much worn classic and while many critics were unimpressed with some of the innovations on offer, this company’s lateral-thinking approach always makes their work an interesting experience. The use of video isn’t to all tastes and it may not work well but I can see why they chose it – it obviates the need for Simon Callow et al to turn up every night, slims down the subplots and implies a wider comment on the surveillance element of the plot.

Shakespeare in a shop is quite a strange idea, and while the avowed purpose of this short season is to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a number of events and displays across the department store, including quotes and merchandise in the famous windows, at heart of course, this is a cunning way to sell things and Selfridges has a themed clothing line as well as copious amounts of accessories, books and general gifts which it hopes to flog to you, while showcasing its stylish fashion credentials with the cast costumes. Yet in return, with several empty seats, the theatre could do more to drum up on-the-spot business from people browsing the cook-wear, because despite its all too frequent summer airing, The Faction is one of London’s leading young companies and their  take on Much Ado About Nothing is fresh and fun.

Shakespeare reFASHIONEDed: Much Ado About Nothing is at Selfridges until 24 September, with performances running Tuesday-Saturday. Tickets cost £20


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