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The production is as addictive as the book!
After repeated delays due to Covid, To Kill A Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre was worth the 2-year wait. Having read the book at least 5 times, my expectations were extremely high, but I was equally excited and apprehensive to see how true they stayed to Harper Lee’s writing of racial injustice in America. A story written 50+ years ago which grievously remains relevant today. Not only in America but worldwide, as history woefully repeats itself. Our glimpse into life in Alabama in the 1930s is profoundly timely and inspiring, given the rise of white nationalism. It is also seriously gripping and absorbing theatre, narrated by the innocent voices of children.
The theatre itself was beautiful from afar, well-lit to catch my eye; the auditorium was decorated with impressive and intricate detail. We were pre-warned via email of the racially explicit language, themes and content, as well as the sexual abuse and violence references. There was prominent signage in the foyer as a reminder. We had very good sightlines in H18 and 19 (stalls), with each row offset from the one in front. The contrasts of an African American man freely strumming chords on his guitar to the left of the stage, and a white woman rigidly playing an organ to the right, greeted us. Then we became silent observers of racial injustice in a courtroom, with the tension slowly increasing until our hearts and souls were ripped apart.
Rafe Spall was captivating as courageous and compassionate small-town lawyer Atticus Finch in seeking the truth. He portrayed the penetrating intelligence, calm wisdom and deeply respected character, based on Lee’s father. We could feel him wrestling with his moral dilemma when Judge Taylor asked him to represent Jim Robinson (played by Jude Owusu), a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman, a crime which carried the death penalty. Unable to abide the town’s ingrained racial prejudice he agreed. Perhaps due to his wise parenting in earning the respect of his children, “Before Jem looks at anyone else he looks at me, and I’ve tried to live so I can look squarely back at him”. He is the play’s consistent moral guide and voice of conscience.
Explaining to his children Scout (played by Gwyneth Keyworth) and Jem (played by Harry Redding), why it was a sin to kill a mocking bird brought us to tears. He teaches them that everyone has both good and bad qualities; to admire the good while forgiving the bad. But his non-wavering practice of sympathy and never holding a grudge, even against those who erroneously discriminate or are callously indifferent, fracture his relationship with his children, particularly Jem. Atticus mournfully says to Jem, “You’re no longer a child. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Scout absolutely steals the play. I was humbled by the acting vocation, with 31-year-old Keyworth (yes, I googled her age after her stella performance) positively convincing me she was a 9-year-old tomboy in the usually prim and proper Southern world. Who solved her problems with her fists, and genuinely worried about the essential goodness and evil of humanity. Having recognised one of the voices of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), her polite questioning shamed him into dispersing the mob. When she pouted at Dill’s mother I had to contain myself to not burst out laughing – she was so forthright and well meaning. Atticus nurtured her to be an intelligent and conscientious individual, without the social hypocrisies and notions of propriety. Initially an innocent and optimistic girl on the cusp of adulthood with no experience with the evils of the world, her character is governed by the question of how she will emerge from Robinson’s trial. Will she be bruised, hurt or destroyed? Will she become cynical and lose her conscience? Thanks to the wisdom of Atticus, at the end of the play, Scout remains a child though closer to a grown-up in life lessons.
Bob Ewell (played by Patrick O’Kane) was the perfect uneducated and racist patriarch; a widower and abusive alcoholic. I hated him. Hated his cruelty. Hated his making his 19-year-old daughter Mayella his surrogate wife and mother for her younger siblings. Hated having his powerless and isolated daughter falsely accuse Robinson, an innocent black man of beating and raping her, to cover his own sexual and emotional abuses of her. We witnessed the strength and talent it takes to perfectly portray such a hateful character.
Boo Radley could be further developed, but the most important elements of his character were included. He is an invisible neighbour; a recluse who appears at night and at the end of the play, but his presence is felt throughout. He symbolizes the town’s history of inequality, intolerance and slavery, which is less admirable and kept hidden. Scout and Jem’s perception of Boo changes from monster to hero and they empathise with his childhood experiences as their characters evolve. When Boo protects the Finch children and saves Jem’s life, Scout asks to escort him home as a gentleman would. Judge Taylor, Sheriff Tate and Atticus end the play in protecting Boo’s privacy, in a lesson of courage, community and law.
During intermission I spoke with a father who was attending with his 12-year-old daughter. She had only read 1 chapter but wished to see the play and was enjoying it very much. If you have not yet read the book, read it with your children. Help them to struggle to fathom the idea of stereotypes, stigmas, prejudice and injustice, as Atticus did with Scout and Jem. To be uncompromising with bullies in our homes, schools, communities, courtrooms and even our governments. To live morally with bravery and integrity throughout their lives, as they increasingly have a say.
Scout is the heart of the play, but Atticus has absolute consistency, rigidly committed to justice and willing to consider the perspective of others. A truly wonderful adaptation of Lee’s classic novel about fairness and justice in a community riddled with prejudice and racial discrimination. Finely written, directed and performed. Not to exclude the superb sets which included a porch exactly as I imagined it, costumes, lighting, music and sound. The cast was in harmony and did justice to one of my favourite books told through the eyes of a child, and even elicited tears from us both. I do not routinely give standing ovations, but I may have been the first to stand. Now to book our second visit. ALL RISE!