First up in the new season at the Open Air Theatre is this adaptation of one of America's most significant and popular works of literature. Harper Lee's book of the same title, which apparently has never been out of print since it was published in 1960, is her only published work, yet as its print record suggests it has had immense influence for millions of people across the globe, leading one commentator to describe it as an 'astonishing phenomenon'.
The first few minutes of this production, directed by the Open Air Theatre's Artistic director Timothy Sheader, left me with an uneasy feeling. It starts with members of the cast popping-up in the audience and reading snippets from the book. As I was sitting almost on the stage in the second row, this involved turning round to see who was talking and to discover just where they were. In this process, I started to miss what was being said. And then I began to get worried about just what Christopher Sergel's adaptation was going to be. Eavesdropping on a conversation behind me during the latter part of the interval, I discovered that I was not alone in being a tad disconcerted at the onset of the evening. But, like my neighbours, after a few minutes into the show the conceptual vision soon started to make sense. A lot of sense. That's because what the production does is to place the book centre-stage, acknowledging its influence and significance. The cast continue to fill-in the gaps which the action cannot cover by reading extracts right through the play. And the copies they use are all different published versions with a variety of jackets and bindings - its almost as if the books are characters in their own right.
The fictional 'tired old town' of Maycomb, Alabama, is brought effectively to life in Jon Bausor's appealingly simple and uncluttered design using little more than chalk lines to lay-out the houses and streets, a few sticks of simple furniture, the odd gate and fence, and one large tree. The rest is left to our imaginations, and it all works perfectly, especially with the park foliage lurking in the background like woodland on the edge of town.
In the first half we meet some of the town characters and learn about others who are more reclusive. In particular, we meet Jem and Scout (played on this occasion by Adam Scotland and Izzy Lee, respectively), the children of Atticus Finch. A lawyer with a strong sense of morality and respect for the rights of others, Finch has recently accepted the task of defending Tom Robinson, a black American accused of rape. In the second half, we see Finch in action in the courtroom as his children look on from the 'colored gallery'.
Courtroom dramas can often be riveting, and this is the case here thanks to several powerful, moving and poignant performances. In charge of the proceedings is Christopher Ettridge as the direct, no-nonsense, but honest Judge Taylor, who presides whilst munching on what looks like a liquorice stick. Richie Campbell is the terrified and despairing Tom Robinson who realises that he is fighting against the odds to prise a not-guilty verdict out of the all-white jury, and breaks down while being questioned. Rona Morison as Mayella Ewell, tries to cover-up her lies by railing against Finch, showing little regard for the life of the man she has falsely accused. And Robert Sean Leonard's highly impressive Atticus Finch is not only a sharp and intelligent advocate, but also a concerned, thoughtful and caring neighbour, a man of integrity whose views about liberty and justice have obviously not been held without substantial personal cost.
'To Kill A Mockingbird' isn't merely concerned with race, or racial prejudice or injustice. As Atticus Finch informs his children about the seemingly odd behaviour of some of their neighbours, it becomes clear that Harper Lee's book is also about compassion, tolerance in general and having consideration for others. All these themes and more are amply described in Timothy Sheader's superbly executed production. If you loved the book, you'll love this play.