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Posts Tagged ‘Harper Lee’

Who’d have thought a stage adaptation of a 1960 novel could seem so relevant 60 years on. There was an earlier stage version in 1990, by Christopher Sergel, which is still performed in and outside the courthouse of Monroesville Alabama each May, with a jury selected at the interval from white male audience members, just as it would have been in 1930, when the play us set. That was hugely successful at the Open Air Theatre in 2013 and 2014 (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/to-kill-a-mockingbird), but this is a new adaptation from Aaron Sorkin, better known for film and TV.

At it’s core is a courtroom drama, the case of a black man alleged to have raped a white girl. A similar real life case in the same year formed the basis of Kander & Ebb’s musical The Scottsboro Boys, co-incidentally a big success here at the same time as the OAT’s Mockingbird. The court scenes alternate with others set in the town, where we see the social background to the case, the ingrained racism and what we would now call white supremacy. This is contrasted with the goodness of a small number of liberal, kind souls including Atticus Finch, small town lawyer, widower and father of two and Judge Taylor, who persuades Atticus to defend the accused, Tom Robinson.

Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation seems to tap in to everything we’ve heard from the far right in recent years. I’m told he’s mined Breitbart, which would account for its resonance today. He’s also added balance by having Atticus’ black housekeeper Calpurnia (a passionate performance from Pamela Nomvete) challenge his blind liberal ‘there’s good in everyone’ sensibility. This takes away some of the saccharine that we Brits sometimes find hard to swallow, leaving a harder edged morality.

Atticus’ two children, Jem & Scout, and their neighbour’s visiting nephew Dill act as narrators and all three – Harry Redding, Gwyneth Keyworth & David Moorst – are terrific. Patrick O’Kane’s characterisation of Bob Ewell, who invents the crime against his daughter whilst himself guilty of abuse, is brilliantly terrifying. We don’t see Rafe Spall on stage anywhere near enough, so it’s great to see him as Atticus, tolerance personified until his shattering outbursts of indignation and rage.

Bartlett Sher’s staging and Miriam Buether’s design are in complete harmony, gently propelling the story organically through many scenes and multiple locations. A deeply satisfying evening in the theatre.

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Once the perfect setting for Shakespeare, then a wonderful home for musicals, then reinvented for 20th century drama, the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park now feels absolutely the right pace for storytelling. This adaptation of Harper Lee’s 60’s classic American novel (and the only thing she ever wrote!) is completely at home.

The actors start reading it from the audience, and continue doing so between scenes throughout the play. The simple staging starts with the town being chalked onto the stage floor. The props are on the sides of the stage, where the actors wait their turn. The only thing on stage for the duration is a tree. It’s all so very simple and so very perfect for storytelling as it draws you in and never lets you go. The charm and innocence of the children is contrasted with the hate of the white racists as the story of misjustice in small town America is played out. Timothy Sheader’s production is enthralling and deeply moving.

I’m not entirely sure which of the three groups of three children performed, but they were sensational. Robert Sean Leonard had great presence as Atticus; father, lawyer and liberal. Both Ritchie Campbell as the accused Tom and Hattie Ladbury as his alleged victim Maudie were hugely impressive. In fact, it’s a bit invidious naming actors, as there isn’t a fault in the casting.

On a clear, dry evening there’s nowhere better than the Open Air Theatre and on this occasion, apart from a tantalising short dusting of a delicate spray (as if to discourage us from becoming complacent), it spun its magic spell yet again and reinvented itself for yet another genre.

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