Thursday, 22 January 2015

21 January, 2015 Chichester Festival Theatre: To Kill a Mockingbird ****

The last thingTimothy Sheader directed at the Festival theatre was the rather scratchy production of Barnum in 2013. This is a musical that has never had very much to recommend it. With its episodic plot and lack of strong musical numbers its longevity seems to have relied on one short and rather superfluous scene where the eponymous hero completes (or fails to complete on many evenings of the CFT run) a short tightrope walk. The CFT production did have one good thing going for it: the main house was having a major refurb in 2013 and the theatre had transferred to a massive tent-like temporary theatre in an adjacent park – the perfect setting for this musical. And if there was one director who could extract the most from this venue it should have been Timothy Sheader. Unfortunately, the production was plagued by constant and outrageous interference from its producer, one Cameron Mackintosh. Constant public rants at the cast and the director made for a pretty unhappy company and, inevitably, a lack-lustre production.

This time Sheader was back in his comfort zone. To Kill a Mockingbird is a touring version of his award-winning Regents Park production. Harper Lee, who has guarded her Pulitzer Prize–winning novel jealously over the years, was highly satisfied with the 1962 movie and Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch; but she did allow Christopher Sergel to make this only dramatisation, a play which debuted in 1990 in her home town of Monroeville and has been performed there annually ever since. So how to dramatise this novel with the shadow of the seminal movie  a constant presence? What the estimable Mr Sergel has done is go back to the text and stayed faithful to it. 

Although the courtroom scene dominates the second half, the merit of this adaptation is that it recognises that this is a book not just about racial inequality and injustice. Rites of passage, loss of innocence, gender inequality, single parenting, small-minded bigotry directed not just at those of a different colour, but at those who are just different from the norm – all are themes which Lee weaves through the novel. The text, a work of literature, is the recognised as the essence. The purpose of the dramatization is merely to illuminate it. Elizabeth Day puts it well in a programme note: “Whenever a story is told rather than read, a new dimension comes into play”

As if to emphasise this the actors arrive as themselves, holding their battered copies of the book (the number of different editions reminding us of the phenomenal success of the book) and provide a narrative throughout the play by quoting directly from the text. They all remain on stage throughout the performance slipping in and out of character by slipping in and out of minimal costumes. They also use chalk lines on the floor (a la Dogville) to divide the performance space into the main locations of the action, the only reference to realism being a large tree with a tyre swing attached and some basic bits and pieces of furniture. 

The days of child actors delivering toe-curlingly stilted lines are long gone (cf my review of God Bless the Child). Jemima Bennett as Scout, Leo Heller as Dill, and Harry Bennett as Jem not only totally inhabit their characters but also cope well with that well-known pitfall for any English actor – the southern states accent. As do the whole cast. No doubt a native of Alabama would shake his head in disbelief, but for us Brits there was nothing jarring or embarrassing in that department thanks to dialect coach Majella Hurley. As Atticus Daniel Betts turned in a performance that was powerful and restrained at the same time, and was well-supported by the whole company. Music by Phil King was  performed in character by Luke Potter on guitar, ukulele and harmonica, and was used sparingly and effectively.

This dramatization will not replace the book and does not try to. It is, if you like, a supplement or commentary which will enlighten those who have read the book and, very successfully, adds that extra dimension. A powerful piece of work.

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