Head High, Fists Down
by Christopher Sergel
based on the novel by Harper Lee
directed by Timothy Sheader
You’d be forgiven for approaching an adaptation of a book published fifty years ago and set in the 1930s’ deep south with a dim sense of déjà vu. Period pieces, especially those based on novels of such cultural heft, are always interesting. But beyond that? What could such a thing possibly have to do with the here and now of today?
In a word, everything. Timothy Sheader’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us why the classics are classics, and why unblinking vigilance in the face of creeping inhumanity is crucial. In a week that has seen presidents singing at pastor’s funerals while halfway across the world caged men are sunk by their brothers into swimming pools, we’re aware at every turn here that to be human is to struggle against our animal instincts of brutal tribalism and knee-jerk bigotry. The results leave the audience on their feet, myself more than welling, and the simple idea strung in the air that if we can only engage our imagination to step into another’s skin, then compassion is the finest thing we’re capable of.
The Barbican has never seemed more welcoming. The house lights are left on as the actors arrive with their dog-eared copies of Harper Lee’s book. In they stream smilingly, like old friends, onto Jon Bausor’s smartly simple blackboard stage, ringed by corrugated iron the colour of bursting suns, the whole set extrapolated by amicable steps down into the stalls. Dogme-style the town is chalked out to the warm tinkling of a ukulele; flowers and houses and streets appearing in a flush of bright enthusiasm. Then the actors take their seats among the few bare props. Throughout the play they sit either side, following the story page by page, engaging generously with their fellow ensemble members. Never more so than with the three children – and rightly so, these are some of the most superb child-actors you will have had the privilege to see. And so together, like a chorus of songbirds, the company tells the story of Scout, daughter to the enigmatically benevolent Atticus Finch, small-town lawyer and widower. She and her older brother Jem are grappling with a slow-dawning world of beauty, mystery and inherent hypocrisy. Finch’s case defending a black man accused of rape is played out among Lee’s semi-autobiographical townsfolk, aided by Oliver Fenwick’s buttery lighting and the effortlessly melodic string-work and voice of Phil King – a sublime musician and performer.
Director Timothy Sheader’s winning conceit of narrative English accents diffusing into impeccably American scenes is a masterstroke. It bridges the world between past and present, not to mention the Atlantic, with luscious ease. This is a genuine ensemble piece, and each and every actor thrives in the stoked glow of the synecdoche created. David Carlisle shines both as the sinisterly warped Mr Radley and the waspish lawyer Gilmer. Natalie Grady is a magnanimous force as the wry Miss Maudie. Ryan Pope is sneeringly, splendidly dislikeable as the feral Bob Ewell. The second half ushers us into the courtroom, notching up the tension tightly, with a stand-out performance from Zachary Momoh as the pitiable, trembling Tom Robinson, useless hand in lap, heart in throat. Boo Radley’s eventual appearance from the stage’s singular tree, an emblem of hope, is a disarmingly touching creation from Christopher Akrill. And of course there is Atticus himself, played with subtle nobility and unshowy humanity by Robert Sean Leonard.
It’s sometimes too easy to overlook the Barbican, this concrete hive in the middle of a somewhat ghostly area, so far from the garish twinkle of the West End. But here it proves itself exceptional for this kind of inclusive piece. This coup of a production reminds us that classics are classics not because some long-dead literary historian decided so, but because they have something extraordinary to tell us, and to keep telling us, until one day, one can only hope, we begin to listen. As Lee says, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” See this and be reminded of the very best of all the many things that make us human.
photos | ©Johan Persson