Please note: This review – like the production itself – discusses rape and abuse. Please take care when reading and click off this article if these subjects are triggering to you.
When it comes to not reading Harper Lee’s legendary novel, I am guilty as charged. A rushed read of the book hours before showtime was unsuccessful, as five pages in I ruled it was heavy in detail, and light on action. Good theatre doesn’t allow for that, and with The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin behind this adaptation, the story becomes far more concise, emotionally charged and riveting.
To be clear, I know at least the basics of the novel, in that lawyer Atticus Finch (Richard Coyle) defends Tom Robinson (Jude Owusu), a Black man falsely accused of raping and abusing a young girl. Here, the story’s told from the perspective of not only Jean Louise “Scout” Finch (Gwyneth Keyworth), but also brother Jem (Harry Redding) and Charles Baker Harris (David Moorst), who offers brilliant comic relief and is quick to remind people he’s called “Dill” for short. There’s something powerful in the narrative being split between the three of them and them announcing the eventual guilty verdicts – like the underscoring of the innocence of children, amidst everything else which unfolds in this story.
Miriam Buether’s set design also unfolds, in a truly impressive style. The courtroom sweeps in and out, and the family home rises up from the floor. The tragedy, however, comes in Bartlett Sher’s loud and clumsy direction. The children, characteristically, stomp off stage when their lines are done, but when you add this to several footsteps on a wooden floor, the rumbling of sets being wheeled off, organ and guitar interludes downstage, and the next line of dialogue being shouted over this, it gets a tad overwhelming.
A real shame, considering this production excels in its ambience, the captivating silence where characters offload their monologues, and which is so easily broken in sharp, searing and emotive scenes. They all have their moments; the quiet giving further weight to their testimony and experiences – such as in the case of Robinson, Calpurnia’s (Pamela Nomvete) eventual outburst or the forensic final monologue by Finch in the courtroom.
Coyle’s Finch presents himself with one hand in his pocket or around his waist. A typical lawyer pose to adopt, sure, but when he is painted as being so indecisive (but certain about Robinson’s innocence), it’s a curious minute detail, as if he is still in need of reassurance, right until the very end, as that uncertainty translates onto Scout as she questions the extent of our own morality and legality. Both acts end with the line ‘all rise’, and it’s hard for us not to following such a sharp, scathing production.
To Kill A Mockingbird is now playing at the Gielgud Theatre until 4 February 2023.
A captioned performance is scheduled to take place on 12 November.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.