Gielgud Theatre, London – until 13 August 2022
Forget, for the moment, both the fame and the arguments over Harper Lee’s classic novel: Aaron Sorkin’s stage adaptation is a freestanding triumph, its poignancy, anger and argument perfectly pitched for our restless age of questioning not only the injustice of racism but the perils of tolerance and the nature of ‘allyship’.
Sorkin worked on this play in the age of Trump and of Black Lives Matter, and it shows. A fusillade of trigger warnings reminds us that it cannot be handled without numerous racial slurs and acknowledgment of violence, sexual and otherwise. For this is smalltown Alabama in the 1930s, held before us with 21st-century intelligence and sorrow. Sorrow for the way that despite the lawyer Atticus Finch’s sense of “the shadow of a beginning”, we are not there yet.
Here the novel’s form is shaken up, to put at its centre from the start the courtroom where Finch defends Tom Robinson from the charge of raping Mayella, the paternally abused teenage daughter of angry, drunken Bob Ewell. Scout, Jem and their pal Dil tell the story through the fourth wall with childlike directness as well as scampering, playing and watching the steadfast idealistic Atticus go through the story. They stand mutely aghast, too in the courtroom in that torrid summer.
The brisk narrative breaches of the fourth wall do not for a moment detract from the power of the big dramatic scenes, both in court and most terrifyingly when Robinson is taken to the county jail, in an obvious attempt to facilitate the local Klansmen’s pre-empting any verdict with guns and rope.
Finch grabs a standard lamp (there is a wonderful domesticity of detail in Miriam Buether’s design, you live alongside them indoors and out). As he meekly holds guard the murderers arrive: we are used to jokey images of the Ku Klux Klan in pointed hoods but these are as they would have been: murderers under scruffy flour-sacks. When Scout innocently recognizes a voice of a classmate’s Dad her childish “Mister Callaghan?” breaks the tension even as it reveals the horrible truth about how deeply ‘friends and neighbours’ have gone sour. Brilliant.
But much is brilliant, theatrically and morally, in Sorkin’s interpretation: Gwyneth Keyworth is a perfect dungareed Scout, and the trio of her, Jem and Dil (Harry Redding, a professional debut, and David Moorst) have a teenage exuberance that defies the gloom and horror of the community. And three points in the adaptation are important. Firstly, Sorkin gives Atticus more of a sharp dry lawyerly wit, half-consciously aware of the difficulty of holding onto his “some good in everyone” idealism. Ralph Spall is extraordinary, both in evoking that, in his fatherly gentleness, and in his single outbreak of violent rage. Secondly, the adaptor puts into the mouth of the terrible Ewell (Patrick O”Kane) more rationalization of his racism than Lee did. Every confected “fear” justifying the white community’s hatred of freed blacks is taken directly from modern Breitbart and other sites. You shiver. And finally, Sorkin gives more voice than Harper Lee to the black characters themselves. This means not just the decent, too-humble Tom Robinson but Calpurnia: a fabulous Pamela Nomvete as the maid and substitute-mother in Atticus’ household. She is a sparring partner unconvinced by his saintlike philosophy that even the most vicious deluded racists should be respected as ‘neighbours and friends” with good in them. When you’re respecting them, she snaps, “no matter who you’re disrespectin’ by doin’ it!” .
There are wonderful cameos too, enhancing the sense of a real community: Amanda Boxer is the abominable Mrs Henry Dubose, Jim Norton a peppery Judge Taylor, and Lloyd Hutchinson has a supreme late moment as the supposed town drunk, with his harsh grieving intelligent kindness. At the side of the stage a chapel harmonium and a lone guitarist play snatches of Adam Guettel’s understatedly powerful music. Your throat catches, often.
It is perhaps unfair, but sometimes there’s a reluctance to let oneself be moved to tears and driven to a standing ovation when a show is big-ticket, born and polished on its Broadway run with not an empty seat, and when its producers were in 2019 so careful of their ownership of rights that they would not tolerate even the humblest regional or amateur touring version of this famous tale. But what the hell: reluctance crumbled, it had me by the throat . Especially when, with Broadway sentimentality, the last tragedy was met with a quiet congregation singing the words “Joy cometh in the morning”. And Calpurnia observed, saltily, that it was takin’ it’s own sweet time. So it is.
box office tokillamockingbird.co.uk to 13 August
rating five . No question.
‘#AaronSorkin’s stage adaptation is a freestanding triumph’: @lib_thinks on the long-awaited Broadway transfer of @MockingbirdUK. ★★★★★ #ToKillAMockingbird #WestEnd #theatrereviews