On the day it was announced that 55 years on from the U.S. Publication of To Kill A Mockingbird and 60 years since Harper Lee set aside her first manuscript to write her enduring 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning classic of American literature, not only does the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production of the novel arrive in Glasgow on a wave of positive reviews, but we find out that this summer, what will only be Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, will be published.
Mockingbird is of the greatest stories ever written about growing up and the loss of innocence and is certainly one of the most revered novels of all time: it is Depression-era Alabama where we meet the Finches, eight year old Scout, her older brother Jem, house-keeper Calpurnia, eccentric friend Dill (based upon Lee’s life-long friend Truman Capote), reclusive neighbour Boo Radley and father Atticus, who is preparing to defend Black, odd-job man Tom Robinson, against a false charge of rape.
The first act opens on Jon Bausor’s spare set of the single tree upon which Scout plays, the actors filing out the detail by scrawling chalk drawings of the town on the floor, and literally and metaphorically fills us in on the local colour in small town Maycomb.
The tale unfolds as the players, acting in turn as narrator, appear in the auditorium, reading from various, dog-eared editions of the novel in their own and very varied UK regional accents: a device which continues throughout the performance, filling the gaps in the narrative that the on-stage action cannot. Whilst this firmly established the universal nature of the work, it ultimately detracts from both the fluidity of the narrative and the establishment of the atmosphere of the Deep South.
The second act is almost entirely courtroom drama. A not-guilty verdict never going to be an option from this all-White jury, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
No easy tale to bring to the stage, dealing as it does with themes of racism, injustice, the loss of innocence and class, courage and gender roles, it uses the authorised, standard and it could be said, constricting adaptation by Christopher Sergel. Director Timothy Sheader, in trying to bring something new to the table; a strolling folk musician and the multiple narrators, has in someways robbed it of its fluidity.
The pace throughout is as languid as a hot summer’s day in the Deep South and whilst the subject matter merits full and careful attention, there’s a danger that the lack of variation in pace and tone leads the viewer to lose focus. It does however engender the right amount of outrage in the audience: there are frequent and audible sharp intakes of breath from the auditorium at the injustices played out onstage.
Stand out amongst the able cast is Daniel Betts and his portrayal of Atticus; it is a perfectly measured performance of stillness and soaring, quiet courage and Ava Potter’s Scout has all the necessary sass that the role requires. Zackary Momoh is also deserving of praise as tragic Tom. Less successful are the other child performers whose poor diction renders whole swathes of dialogue unintelligible.
To Kill a Mockingbird provides, as it always has, a mirror in which to examine our own feelings about prejudice and injustice. It also brings into focus and allows us to reflect on, events of the last few months where accusations have been levelled at the U.S. police force regarding institutional racism towards the Black community. 80 years on from the setting of this work, it prompts us to ask ourselves: “has anything really changed?”
Runs until Saturday 7 February 2015 then touring