On the dust jacket of the first edition, Truman Capote described Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird as a novel ‘so likeable’. And, whatever he meant by that, he was right. It’s a book seemingly universally admired, and not just admired but, that most rare thing in literature, loved too and loved genuinely. And it is this warmth of spirit, this likeability, which comes across so readily in Timothy Sheader’s heartening production.
The action begins with the cast dotted among the audience, each jumping onto their seat to read a few lines from the book’s opening chapter. Such choric reading happens throughout the play to advance the plot and, in which cases, the cast read from their own well-thumbed editions in their own natural accents. Though it arguably dulls some of Scout Finch’s cock-a-hoop idioms to have them bulldozed with an English or Scottish accent, it succeeds in making the book personal. It is a neat trick. It says: this story did not happen to us; but it is ours nevertheless – we have acquired it somehow with our ill-fitting speech and our proud smiles and our twinkling eyes.
To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the town of Maycomb, Alabama, sometime in the Great Depression. Told through the understanding of the 8-year-old Scout Finch, the story focuses on her father, Atticus, a widower and a lawyer of enormous courage and principle, who defends a local black man on the spurious charge of beating and raping a white woman. Through Scout’s piercingly innocent inquiry we see Maycomb’s gangrenous underbelly expose itself as one of darkness and prejudice, but we also see the glimmers of light in those townsfolk who, in their own quiet way, reject the de rigueur racism of their community, and who will become the town’s future.
Designer Jon Bausor has seemingly taken a leaf out of Lars Von Trier’s book, by having the cast draw the Maycomb set onto the concrete stage in chalk – Von Trier’s film Dogville had a similar conceit. I actually thought it worked rather better in this play than it does in Von Trier’s tirelessly maudlin film because, whereas in Dogville it was a device used to show only the duplicity of mankind, in the violence and neglect that goes on behind closed doors, here it captures something far less blunt: it replicates the mnemonic nature of the story as it is told. As Scout the narrator, an unknowable amount of years older than Scout the character, remembers the events of those two summers she conjures before us the town from memory, delineating again the paths, the views and the streets of her childhood. And so it is drawn here, in a relic from the schoolroom, and in a dust that will wash away and be forgotten in the rain.
The cast is uniformly strong, with perhaps the black maid, Calpurnia (Michele Campbell), and the neighbour, Maudie Atkinson (Hattie Ladbury), standing out among the supporting cast. Robert Sean Leonard, dressed in a suitably sweat-soaked linen suit, gives us an incredibly comforting, if unoriginal portrayal of Atticus. He is Atticus the archetype, I suppose, the man you imagine from the book, which is hardly a criticism. On the evening I saw the production the children, Scout, Jem and Dill, were played by Eleanor Worthington-Cox, Callum Henderson, and Sebastian Clifford respectively, and each of them was flawless in their portrayal, bringing wit and charm and that requisite sense of wisdom-beyond-their-years to the characters.
Really the only criticism I can find with Sheader’s production is that – and it feels unfair of me to say so – it is somewhat a victim of its own successes. So fondly is the book treated, so accurately are the scenes recreated, that as a piece of drama it ends up feeling overtly safe. Emotional punches are retained, certainly, but they come to the fore only in a handful of scenes, like in the bedroom where Scout asks Jem what he remembers of their dead mother, or the moment Scout recognises Boo Radley. It is ultimately a production that gives us little in the way of dramatic surprises or conflict. One feels that the lines have all been drawn and the arguments already fought and won. Essentially, it is a narrative that made its mind up years ago and, as such, the production feels less a vital piece of theatre, than a staging of a GCSE set text – which, in fairness, is exactly what it is, and which was testified last night by the coachloads of teenagers sat snaked through the auditorium.
Still, what the stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird lacks in edge it more than makes up for in storytelling, in class, in clarity and in likeability. And if you’re going to stage a book so undeniably likeable, then it would be a sin to tinker with it, lest you kill that thing about it, that unnamed quality, that so sings in the memory.