Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic novel is engrossing to watch from start to finish.
Sharp, powerful and still strikingly relevant, Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s memorable novel keeps the audience mesmerisingly engaged as the tragedy of the story unfolds – even if it feels as though the story is too quickly rushed through in the final few scenes.
In Aaron Sorkin’s snappy and adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, the focus is transformed from the perspective of Atticus Finch’s daughter Scout to her father, highlighting the lawyer’s dilemmas in defending Tom Robinson, wrongly accused of assaulting a young white woman by the name of Mayella Ewell. This new adaptation has depth and thoughtfulness about it to give a new perspective to this well known story. While the touches of humour that can be found throughout might seem to soften the story slightly, it also allows the audience to have a slight breather from the intensity of the courtroom scenes and allows us to feel as part of what is unfolding as much as the characters themselves. This is really highlighted in the way that Scout, Jem and Dill all narrate certain aspects of the story, ensuring that the audience understands the community and the people in it.
As a production, it is impressively staged, with Bartlett Sher’s direction ensuring that the audience is thoroughly absorbed through the way each scene is perfectly framed with the help of Miriam Buether’s rural set designs that seamlessly transform from one location to the next. This is a production that although billed at three hours long – but actually feels less than that because this adaptation is so focused and comes across as gentle – but can provide plenty of stings when it is warranted – the use of a certain n word for example is a harsh reminder of the disdain for black people not only at that time but as this production suggests in the present day as well. It constantly has you thinking and challenging your perspectives.
Other aspects of the production that really enhance the story perfectly include the performances of Candida Caldicot on the bellows-organ and Frank Dawkins on acoustic guitar, although subtle, beautifully highlight the drama at specific moments, while Jennifer Tipton’s lighting design is by turns suitably chilling (as captured when some of the people of the town decide to try and take the case of Tom Robinson into their own hands) and striking to showcase the characters state of mind.
Perhaps the only slight flaw with this production is the rushed feel to the ending – the tragedy of Tom Robinson’s case and final moments of what really happened to the brutal Bob Ewell could have used a little more room to breathe and let the audience really see the consequences and the double standards of how two similar situations are handled in completely different ways should have more power and punch behind it.
As Atticus Finch, Rafe Spall gives the character plenty of dignity – while also capturing the inconsistencies in his moral outlook, you really feel his increasing frustration with the justice system. His strong outburst in the courtroom is one of the most powerful moments in the show, effectively highlighting the flaws in the justice system – you can’t keep your eyes off him as he attempts to defend Tom with everything that he has – despite the potential cost to his own reputation in the community. Meanwhile, Gwyneth Keyworth and Harry Redding as Scout and Jem Finch respectively deliver plenty of passion and sharpness to their characters that make them a delight to watch, while David Moorst as their friend Dill gives a throughly joyous performance – and is one to keep an eye out for in the future. Jude Owusu gives Tom Robinson a quiet but no less powerful performance, giving the character a very different kind of dignity to Atticus that contrasts nicely. Patrick O’Kane as the bully Bob Ewell and Poppy Lee Friar as Mayella Ewell are equally compelling and chilling to watch. This is an excellently put together cast.
Offering a new take on this classic story, this is a stage adaptation that will keep you thinking about what you have just seen for a long time to come. A powerful and mesmerising production.
By Emma Clarendon
To Kill a Mockingbird continues to play at the Gielgud Theatre until the 13th August. You can book your tickets here.