As Harper Lee’s long-awaited Go Set a Watchman hits the shelves, Fiona Longmuir is stirred once again by a timely stage adaptation of the author’s unforgettable tale of injustice.
To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those endlessly provocative books that means so much to so many people. The story of a black man falsely accused of rape by a white woman in a small town in the American South is told through the eyes of six-year-old Scout Finch. Her father’s defence of the young accused teaches Scout wider lessons about fairness, truth and what it really means to be brave.
Read at the right age, To Kill a Mockingbird is seminal. It was my first experience of the sheer power and cruelty of racism. I remember, even as a child, the white-hot rage prickling my skin.
“I didn’t think that an actor would be able to encapsulate all that Atticus meant to me as a young reader. He encompasses everything that you believe your father to be: brave, wise, kind, fair, frustrating, confusing and occasionally terrifying.”
Seeing the stage production at the Barbican this week, I found that my anger hadn’t subsided one bit in the years since. The story of injustice is no less shocking and disturbing in a modern context, especially when seen through the eyes of a child. But what makes To Kill a Mockingbird so timeless isn’t its brutality, it’s its beauty, and that is something this production captures wonderfully.
The set is stunning. A large pecan tree dominates the stage, Scout’s iconic tyre swing hanging from its branches. The rest of the town is built by the actors in the opening of the play; houses, roads and gardens sketched out in chalk, like kids’ doodles on summer pavements. Copies of Harper Lee’s book lie strewn around. The actors are lit in shades of yellow and red, mimicking the languid heat described in the opening lines of the show. A solitary performer provides music, sending traditional Southern strains of guitar and harmonica meandering around the stage.
The actors switch effortlessly between multiple characters and narrators, moving the evolving set and dressing each other. There isn’t a single weak link in the cast, with everyone putting in excellent performances. The physicality used by each performer is incredible, with each separate character being clearly defined and distinguishable.
The three children (for this performance, Jemima Bennett as Scout, Harry Bennett as Jem and Leo Heller as Dill) absolutely bubble with energy, humour and innocence. Their struggle to understand the events ripping through their society is portrayed with real maturity by the three young actors and their growth as characters is compelling. Ryan Pope plays Bob Ewell, the white accuser, with stomach-turning, skin crawling skill. But for me, the star of this show is Robert Sean Leonard’s turn as Atticus Finch.
I didn’t think that an actor would be able to encapsulate all that Atticus meant to me as a young reader. He encompasses everything that you believe your father to be as a child: brave, wise, kind, fair, frustrating, confusing and occasionally terrifying. Leonard’s performance is gentle and elegant, his soft demeanour doing nothing to diminish his enormous stage presence. He plays Atticus with tremendous grace, and as an adult, the character’s strength and compassion moved me to tears on more than one occasion.
The play is a gorgeous, loving tribute to a book that has been treasured by generations of readers. If you can get your hands on a ticket, do. And bring tissues.
To Kill a Mockingbird runs until 25 July at the Barbican Theatre. Click here for more info and to buy tickets.3921 Views
Fiona Longmuir is a professional storyteller, reluctant adult and aspiring funny girl. When not getting naked in tube stations and binge-watching inappropriate TV shows, she can be found scribbling at the Escapologist's Daughter.