“To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, adapted by Christopher Sergel
Reviewed by Lee Farley at Malvern Theatres
Adapting a well-loved novel for the stage is a marketable idea. Any production faces a number of questions about how the story is told and why use theatre to tell it.
Timothy Sheader’s production is solid, well performed and has some fantastic moments. The design is particularly striking – practical, attractive and evocative. The fictional small southern American town of Maycomb (standing in for all small southern American towns) is cleverly created on the stage floor via a chalk map drawn by the cast. The only permanent piece of set is a tree from which Scout swings in a tyre which serves as a looming symbol of childhood, playfulness and something more sinister and divisive. Furniture is carried onstage only when strictly necessary. The focus is on the performers which is a good decision with a large cast and a whole lot of story to get through.
All the performances are lively and convincing; Atticus, Scout, Jem and Dill are played by actors who focus just on that one role and an ensemble of eleven share all the other characters and provide narration. This is one of the difficulties of adapting a novel; how do you turn chunks of narrative into dynamic theatrical action? This production chooses a too safe and conservative option; the ensemble simply come forward and read us sections from the book. This works adequately at first but is over-used and defeats the purpose of this being a play. The ensemble keep their various editions of the novel with them throughout. When they’re waiting onstage for their next scene, they’re reading from their books. The final moment, after the curtain call, is the cast holding up the text and placing it reverentially on the stage. “This is a great book”, they seem to be underlining, “you should read it.” Good advice.
Phil King plays live, original acoustic guitar music, but this interesting option of providing commentary and emotional resonance to the action is underused. The production never quite commits to its most interesting ideas.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is written from Scout’s perspective. This is a crucial part of the book’s success and provides a stern challenge for a stage adaptation. I would like to have seen a more interesting, innovative approach to translate this onto the stage. The court scene was simply played straight, rather than being filtered through Scout’s viewpoint, leaving it feeling too long and one-dimensional without the novel’s crucial and revealing frame of reference.
This is a solid production with some excellent work, particularly from designer Jon Bausor and the tremendous company of actors. It just falls short of the “should I just read the book?” test, having made some too-obvious and unimaginative production decisions