“Mockingbirds just make music; they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out. That’s why it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
To Kill a Mockingbird is probably one of the most beloved books of all time. Since being published in 1960 and winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1961, it has touched the hearts of children as well as grown-ups. Harper Lee’s classic about racism and injustice, experienced through the eyes of the young Scout, tells the story of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. Atticus Finch, Scout’s father, is defending him in court and causes a stir in the small town as racism rages in 30s America. For Scout and her older brother, Jem, and their friend Dill it seems unfair and shocking that a man can be accused of a crime he didn’t commit due to the colour of his skin, and the children embark on an emotional journey as they follow Atticus’s fight for justice and equality.
Having never actually read it myself (shame on me, I know) I had no expectations entering the rural setting of the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park. It has a magical feel to it, like entering the perfect setting for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and despite the typical cloudy and plain miserable English weather the set and lighting transports us to southern Alabama and Harper Lee’s world. Jon Bausor’s set design is plain brilliant with various versions of the book lying on the stage, occasionally being picked up by cast members and with different sections read out loud. It’s like storytelling when you were young, when your parents read to you at bedtime and you imagined the world of the book and heard the voices of the characters. As To Kill a Mockingbird is such a beloved book this idea honours it very well, and with Phil King’s beautiful voice and songwriting the play has a Shakespearean feel to it. As cast members draw Scout’s world in chalk on the floor images spring to life in our heads, and create a perfect balance between a classic story and the modern world in which it’s performed.
The cast is fantastic and jump in and out of characters, storytelling and stage managing. I’m usually not very keen on child actors – an image of a cockney Simba still haunts me even four years after watching The Lion King – but Eleanor Worthington-Cox is such a lovable little charmer that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her feisty Scout. She is one of the Laurence Olivier-winning Matildas so no surprise this girl knows how to get her audience. Callum Henderson’s Jem and Sebastian Clifford’s Dill are equally cute and innocent, and hats off to the three of them for managing to keep a southern American accent (which, if you are an actor, you’ll know is pretty hard!). House’s Robert Sean Leonard is a credible, warm and admirable Atticus Finch and his appeal to the jury’s (the audience’s) conscience in convicting Tom Robinson is especially touching.
Director Timothy Sheader really understands how to use his venue, cast and crew to their best abilities and has created a performance of truth, childlike innocence and a sense of play in his outdoor set, never losing the gravity and tragic undertones of the story. If you have read the book as a child then this is a great way of re-experiencing the delightful feistiness of Scout’s mind. If you haven’t, this production will certainly make you buy the book. Just remember to bring a blanket to the performance as the British weather doesn’t do the story and setting credit.
To Kill a Mockingbird is playing at the Open Air Theatre in Regents Park until 15 June. For more information and tickets, see the Open Air Theatre website.