To Kill a Mockingbird is a publishing phenomenon, having sold more than 30 million copies, been translated into 32 languages, adapted into a 1962 film, and in 1970 developed for the stage. Harper Lee’s novel is not just a story of prejudice, justice and social standing; it is one of fortitude and empathy. It takes hold of small-town misconceptions and shakes the core of the Deep South of the 1930s, whilst expressing the wonderful innocence of childhood.
Therefore Damian Cruden had his work cut out to take Christopher Sergel’s adaptation and place it onstage in a way that was relevant to a twenty-first century audience. A simple set of pale wood, cut into slats that cast prison-like shadows across the stage, become the perfect backdrop to Lee’s story, and without unnecessary clutter the space is a blank slate onto which the life of Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch is portrayed.
Jacqueline Wood is the adult Jean Louise, narrating the story and weaving her way between the other characters, reminiscing about her strange and naïve childhood. Wood, though looking a little out of place in a harsh black dress-suit, maintains the essence of youth that is essential to link the past and present together, and provides a detailed insight into the thoughts of the young Scout. Projections and voice-overs were used to try and enhance the essence of memory, however some out of sync recordings and obscured images on the backdrop were more distracting than enlightening – a clever design concept, but not quite as effective as one might have hoped.
The story follows Scout, Jem and Dill through the trail of Tom Robinson – Grace Rowe presents an enthusiastic portrait of Scout, alongside Matthew Pattimore as Jem and Graeme Dalling as Dill. Pattimore’s Jem is an accurate depiction of an older brother, but one who has not yet reached manhood and teeters on that unnerving brink of adolescence. He is both fool-hardy and protective, and worked well with the other children. Dalling is the slightly more refined Dill, and expertly worked his way into becoming a familiar part of the Finch family. Beginning tentatively, Dalling was able to produce a character that was likeable but ultimately set apart from the townspeople.
Of course, the role of Atticus Finch is not a light one, especially after Gregory Peck’s Academy-award winning performance in the 1962 film. However, Duncan Preston flawlessly conveys the fatherly figure; likable and justified, he shows his assertive beliefs as well as his deep love for his children. His stirring speech in Act Two reminded me of Shylock’s “hath not a Jew eyes”, so much so that I would not have been surprised to hear exclamations of agreement from the audience who had been transformed into the jury at Robinson’s trial. Preston was steadfast in his performance, expressing Atticus’ sense of injustice and determination to do right.
However, there were two small but crucial characters who I felt stole the show – Clare Corbett’s Mayella Ewell and Cornelius Macarthy’s Tom Robinson were moving, tempestuous and utterly engaging in their short but perfectly performed monologues. Corbett was both heart-wrenching and incredibly frustrating as Mayella, the ‘wronged’ girl at the trial – she spoke out with emotion that was almost too much to bear, torn between social convention and the fear of her father. Macarthy, playing the honest Robinson, was quiet but unfaltering in his defence making only the coldest of hearts wish to see him pronounced guilty. Two outstanding performances in possibly the most difficult of roles.
A line or two must be said in praise of Caroline Hetherington, the dialect coach who brought this troupe of actors into the Deep South, tutoring an extremely complicated accent that requires an in-depth look at the text. Not one person failed in capturing the essence of a Maycomb native, and Hetherington must be given credit for her excellent work.
Cruden enables a truly cathartic release in the audience in the final scene as Heck Tate (Andy Hockley), defies social law and turns; “Let the dead bury the dead”, and all we can do is nod. A sensitive and artistic renewal of a literary classic, well cast and evoking the strength of truth and justice, and the consequences of these things denied. The Touring Consortium has created a piece of theatre that cannot be easy to move around, but is handled with expertise and understanding. Something a little deeper that challenges any kind of intolerance, this play is just as important today as it was in the 50s.
To Kill A Mockingbird is playing at the Richmond Theatre until 7th May. For information and tickets see the website here.