Harper Lee wrote one – many would argue, perfect – novel, an evocative account of growing up in the American South in the 1930s that pricked at the skin of a community and revealed the social and racial tensions beneath. In Atticus Finch she created one of American fiction’s most beloved and enduring characters and the film version, released a mere two years after the book’s publication, cemented its reputation as a classic of its kind. Lee, who had been working on a second novel, never completed another book. The last official interview she gave was in the 1960s. She’d said her piece; she was done (though we were not done with her and even now Marja Mills’ forthcoming biography of Lee is kicking up controversy).
Yet To Kill a Mockingbird continues to speak to generations (whether they want it to or not, as it is so very firmly rooted in set text territory). Damian Cruden’s production for York Theatre Royal and the Touring Theatre Consortium strips away a lot of the extraneous material, the vignettes of Scout’s schooling, despotic Aunt Alexandra, and concentrates on the episodes that most people remember: the courthouse scenes, the trial of Tom Robinson.
Christopher Sergel’ adaptation seeks to recreate the voice of the novel, the sense of looking back with wiser eyes, by having young Scout shadowed by her adult self. This older Jean Louise articulates the things of which the eight year old Scout is only slowly becoming aware, but the device is never fully explored and as the courtroom scenes exert their grip, she is reduced to silent observer.
It is, however, in these scenes that the production really hits its stride. The trial is compellingly directed and delivered, with defence and prosecution on either side of the stage and the good folk of Maycomb fanning themselves in the sticky Southern heat as the increasingly discomfiting details of the case are revealed to them. Even though the outcome is never in question (in every sense) an atmosphere of considerable tension is created and maintained.
Elsewhere the production sags under the weight of all the ground it needs to cover. The children’s taunting of their neighbour Boo Radley is handled hastily and the scene in which Atticus, a man whose dislike of guns has been established, shoots a mad dog with a single shot feels perfunctory. The many delightful subtleties of the relationship between father and daughter, the way Atticus grows in stature in Scout’s eyes, get somewhat lost along the way. This is partly due to the casting of young adults in the role of children – only Graeme Dalling, as their neighbour Dill, the eternal outsider, hits a workable balance. Duncan Preston has a suitably calm and quiet gravitas as Atticus but it’s only in the courtroom scenes, and in that awful moment where Scout inadvertently interrupts a lynch mob, that he really starts to exert a presence.
Liam Doona’s set, composed of sun-bleached slats and a single leafless tree, is stylish and simple yet also effective. It works both as clapboard courthouse interior and as a more general backdrop. Occasionally video is projected on the slatted back wall, dreamlike snippets, faded like an old photograph; these tie in with the reflective tone of Jean Louise’s narration but, again, it’s a device that feels under-utilised. In fact throughout there’s this niggling sense of a production being pulled in two directions, one tempted to be more adventurous visually and formally but also tethered to the need to remain faithful to a classic text.