‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ cast on bringing the American novel to the British stage
The adult actors who portray the children in the show share what its like to narrate the Aaron Sorkin play, why the themes are still relevant, and what it’s like to return to the stage after lockdown.
Gwyneth Keyworth, David Moorst, and Harry Redding hardly knew each other before taking on roles as siblings and childhood friends in To Kill a Mockingbird. Sure, they had some mutual friends and maybe worked on a small project while still in drama school, but the first time they properly met was at a promotional photo shoot for the new West End production playing at the Gielgud Theatre.
“There was this feeling of like, okay, we're doing this together,” said Redding, who is making his professional stage debut as Jem Finch. “We've got to be very close with each other and we've got to have that kind of chemistry that the kids need in the show.”
In Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic American novel, Redding and Keyworth play Jem and Scout Finch, the children of lawyer Atticus Finch, alongside Moorst as their childhood friend Dill Harris. The kids narrate the stage adaptation, which centres on the trial of Tom Robinson, the Black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman in 1930s Georgia.
Since the actors are adults playing these young characters, they bring a lot of perspective and gravity to their portrayals, while also harnessing the childlike innocence that makes this story so haunting and powerful to this day.
“It just ended up really good fun when we were sort of making those bits where we are more of the childlike versions of the characters,” Moorst added. “And sort of messing around, and having laugh, and sort of finding how their characters get on, but also how we get on as actors, which I think is in the play. I think that is important sort of how we get on.”
London Theatre caught up with the actors on Zoom to chat about how the story relates to British audiences, why the play is still relevant, and what it’s like to bring to audiences after lockdown.
To Kill a Mockingbird is an iconic American novel. Is it as popularised here?
David: I read it at school and that was my introduction to it. But I'd read it a couple of times since. And when I found out about the play and the audition for it, I read it again, but that was maybe a couple years ago now.
Harry: I didn't do it at school at all. I know in America it's kind of, it's part of the curriculum in a big way, but I'd never read it. I knew that it was about a trial. I knew it was about someone called Atticus Finch. I didn't really know anything to do with the specifics of the story. But then when I was auditioning for it and in preparation for rehearsals, I've read it a couple of times, which was quite nice to not have much of a sense of what the story was and to kind of experience it like that just before rehearsals was really helpful.
Gwyneth: I knew of it. It was around. And my sister had studied it at school and really enjoyed it. And actually, she told me to read it, so I'd read it, but I didn't have as studious a relationship to the book as in America.
The story is quintessentially American, set in the South in the 1930s. Do you feel like British audiences will have a similar resonance with the story?
Harry: The play definitely has resonance today, wherever you take it. You can sense that the audience is really engaging with the play and that it's affecting them and they're engaging with the questions that the play brings up. We talked about this in rehearsals as well. There are specific references in the play that I think probably are lost on the majority of British audiences.
Gwyneth: I think the main themes of social justice, and family relations are universal. In the UK, I think, we can sometimes have an attitude of, “We're not as bad as America.” But it doesn't take much look into history to be like…we're kind of behind it all. And I think that we're coming out of a time — during a global pandemic and with the Black Lives Matter movement—that these questions are really important.
And the brilliant thing about To Kill a Mockingbird is it’s such a well-loved book and we're being able to bring it back to an audience that really wants to engage with those questions in a much bigger way…They’re still engaging with the core of the piece. And the questions transcend cultural barriers.
Some of the aspects are inspired by Harper Lee’s life, such as Scout being a stand-in for Lee and Dill for Truman Capote, who lived next door to Lee growing up. David and Gwyneth, how did you explore this historical context when preparing to take on these roles?
David: I think that Aaron [Sorkin] took things from the book and opened them up slightly for Dill, and allowed Dill to realize a bit more about who he is. The queerness of that character isn't really sort of spoken about in the book, but I remember reading it at school, and there are things about it that stood with me, and Dill was always one of them. I could feel that he was this young gay boy in Maycomb, but it's not really spoken about.
Gwyneth: Truman Capote and Harper Lee, they were revolutionaries. I don't write that much, but people always say, “You can't help but write about things that you know,” and I think obviously that would pour into Harper Lee's work, or Truman Capote's work. So they live and breathe throughout the book of To Kill A Mockingbird. There’s a book called Atticus, A Biography, which is really good, gives lots of historical context and history of what Harper Lee was going through at the time that helped feed the creation of the character as much as well.
Scout’s one of the most famous characters in the literary canon. Gwyneth, what is it like portraying her onstage?
Gwyneth: Everyone loves Scout because I think she represents something for people that have an unwavering commitment to be oneself. She's in a world where everyone is telling her what she fundamentally is, is wrong. We’ve spoken a lot about non-binary, but for most girls, I do think that there is a culture that you are told that you have to a adhere to. That to be a girl is to be someone that is diligent, that is tidy, quiet, and seen and not heard. It's very sort of Victorian in value sometimes.
I remember growing up with that myself and wanting to play with the boys, and that being seen as me being “other.” Why is that? And I think that's probably something that wherever you fall on the spectrum of sex or gender, something that we can all recognize in ourselves. That feeling at some point in your life, you had to adhere to something that you just didn't feel like, because you felt like you had to sign up for the constructs of society. And I love that Scout is out there going, "Nope, I'm not going to do that."…She's braver than most of us I think, but she's also like untamed, which I think is great.
What does it mean to you to be bringing this story back to audiences now after such a massive time away?
Gwyneth: What’s kind of amazing about this play is the fact that it's not a passive experience. The audience are very much an active character. And I think in the pandemic, we all watched a load of good TV. And there were lovely books to read, but what was missing, I found, was human connection and shared experiences. And this play is talking about big, important things that were both pertinent to Harper Lee in the 1950s, or when she was looking back at the '30s, but also to today. That is both incredible and sort of heart-breaking that these things still exist.
Harry: I found during the pandemic my bubble got smaller, and smaller, and smaller. And I went kind of very in on myself. And I think what I was missing was having these kinds of conversations and looking out into the world a bit more. And I think I found rehearsals incredibly moving, being in a room with that many people. It was overwhelming. The first day sitting in a room, it was probably 30 or 40 people, reading the play. I found incredibly moving, because it was a bit like first day of school and everyone's a bit like, "Oh God, I can't remember how to do this." But everyone was very hungry to do it and was ready to engage with it. I think we've missed it a lot.
David: That’s the thing that everybody shared, moments where you've been like, "Oh God, I've not done this in so long. I don't know how to do it. I can't remember." And everyone’s been going through that at some various different stages. And I think that's created a really lovely thing in our room, and we brought that to theatre hopefully. And I feel very lucky to be experiencing that with these people.
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