I have a confession to make. I’ve never read Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, nor seen the film with Gregory Peck. Independent Theatre’s production, based on a stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, doesn’t exactly make me want to do either, not because it’s bad (it isn’t) but because there’s something about Lee’s story which makes me want to, well, dislike it. There’s no question of its effectiveness (not to mention popularity) as a fable about racism but the story’s sentimentality and wholesomeness have come, I think, to overwhelm its strengths as a social critique. It’s so politically correct, so right-on that even frequent usage of the n-word and the appearance of a lynch mob can’t penetrate its stultifying air of goodness.
Everybody in the world except me, it appears, has read To Kill A Mockingbird but just in case it turns out I’m not alone, here’s the lowdown: in the mid-1930s, the (fictitious) Southern American town of Maycomb is transfixed by a rape trial in which black man Tom Robinson (Shedrick Yarkpai) is accused of assaulting a young woman by the girl’s father, Bob Ewell (Bart Csorba). Robinson is being defended by virtuous lawyer Atticus Finch (David Roach) who believes (and is naturally proven correct) that the girl’s father is in fact the culprit. Meanwhile, Finch’s children Scout (Emma Bleby) and Jem (Mark Mulders), along with visiting friend Dill (Jake Billich), become obsessed with the recluse Boo Radley (Allen Munn) over the course of the summer holidays. These two narrative threads collide explosively when the drunken Ewell attacks the children and Boo makes his long-awaited appearance...
Maybe the contemporary fixation with anti-heroes has poisoned my mind, but I found Atticus Finch insufferable rather than laudable, a Jesus-like figure who presents as superhuman rather than human in his gentlemanly graces and endlessly tedious moralising. There’s nothing really wrong with Roach’s performance; it’s just that moral exemplars like Finch don’t really exist so something is lost in the exchange between the character and the audience. I kept waiting for the cracks to appear so that we could see what he is really made of but ultimately I was left waiting. Maybe the character works better in the novel than on stage, where Lee’s writing is perhaps good enough to rough up Finch’s edges just enough to lend him a reality which never strikes in Christopher Sergel’s adaptation.
Not having read the book, it’s hard to know what to make of Sergel’s version and what, in turn, Sergel has made of the book. His biggest mistake may have been his decision to have an older Scout (Lyn Wilson) act as narrator. I got unhappily used to being wrenched out of the play by her relentless interruptions which add virtually nothing. Wilson’s slightly over-earnest performance didn’t help but no actor, no matter how good, could have persuaded me that the play requires a tour guide. The plot is perfectly straightforward and needs no further explanation, and nothing the older Scout says could not be conveyed equally or more effectively via the performances. The three main child actors are all terrific. Their characters’ internal lives are clear enough, and it does both them and the audience a disservice by having the adult Scout interpose thoughts which everybody has grasped already.
There is much that is polished and professional about this production – the expansive, earthy set, the immaculate soundscape, the mostly very fine performances – but for much of the time I felt bored more than anything, particularly during the second act when events take an increasingly predictable course and the children have less to do. Finch’s speech before the court has to happen like a vaccination has to happen but it is too long and the contrived circumstances of Tom Robinson’s case hit home with renewed daftness. I only felt engaged again when Bob Ewell is safely dead and Scout and Jem wave off the adorable Dill as the summer holidays, as ever, come to an end too soon.
To Kill A Mockingbird may always be read by schoolchildren – good luck to them, and their teachers. I have no doubt Lee’s book can only do good things in classrooms, and in this respect Independent Theatre’s production is no different. It feels as though watching this play is good for you, a peculiarly American quality which will please many people but left this reviewer feeling more ambivalent than anything else, and somewhat put-upon. That’s not to fault this production, nor Rob Croser’s proficient direction of it. It is not, either, to discourage anyone from seeing it; I certainly have no hesitation in recommending it as a consummate, accessible piece of live entertainment for children. It’s not the performances nor the production values but the play itself which creaks, a sign perhaps that Lee’s much-loved story may finally be running out of steam.