Set in 1933, Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ charts racial injustice in the Great Depression-hit small town of Maycomb, Alabama. Her book was first published in 1960, and the following year it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I read the novel for the first time since my teens before yesterday’s (21.02.2015) performance at His Majesty's Theatre (HMT).
It is not difficult to explicate the book, and in its simplicity lies the warmth and wonder of the story. The Finch family bring conviction, hope and courage to a neighbourhood trapped in toxic bigotry and ignorance. Reading the book again after half a century, I reflected on how millions of us have united to challenge the discrimination faced by folk who are stereotyped and judged solely by their ethnicity, by the colour of their skins. We must maintain vigilance.
Besides racism, Lee’s story also explores - or touches on - poverty, alienation, class, the corruption of innocence, mental health issues and even child abuse. On a lighter note, the names of two rock acts - Tom Robinson (most famous for the anthemic ‘Glad to be Gay’) and ‘90s rockers the Boo Radleys – are characters in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.
Adapted for the stage by Christopher Sergel, the production by Regent’s Park Open Air theatre company at Aberdeen's HMT was directed by Timothy Sheader. The play operates on three levels – a principal line-up, the narrators and us, the audience. In the second part, we are the jury in a courtroom drama. The set echoes the technique of Brecht; props are kept to a minimum – a tree with a swing, fencing, a bed is wheeled on to be secured on the tilted stage. The lighting is harsh, never dim. The ditties accompanied by acoustic guitar are in no way incongruous. Rough chalking of maps and rapid costume changes onstage give us movement, almost a form of dance. The audience was held spellbound. His Majesty’s Theatre was packed for this matinee performance, although members of the younger generation were noticeable by their absence. Earlier in the tour, the cast had received a standing ovation from their Glasgow audience.
Daniel Betts plays wise lawyer and single parent Atticus Finch. His impulsive son Jem is played by Billy Price. Rosie Boore stars as the youngest of three cast members playing feisty tomboy Scout, Jem’s younger sister. The other two are narrators. Special mention must be made of Susan Lawson-Reynolds, who excels as the loyal Finch housekeeper Calpurnia, and Zackary Momoh’s portrayal of the dignified black man accused of rape, Tom Robinson.
Harper Lee partly based the odd character of Dill on her childhood friend, author Truman Capote. Dill is fascinated by Boo Radley, who lives in the same street as the Finch family. For 25 years Boo doesn't leave his house or feature in person until the dramatic end to the story. Capote wrote in the book's first edition: ‘Someone rare has written this very fine first novel: a writer with the liveliest sense of life, and the warmest, most authentic sense of humour. A touching book, so funny, so likeable.’
Harper Lee released a second novel, penned before 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. Titled 'Go Set a Watchman', it features an older Scout. Some of her hometown friends say she's been manipulated into publishing the sequel. From her nursing home, she reacts to queries by telling journalists to 'Go away', which seems to be a sensible and lucid response, typically acerbic by most accounts.
Harper Lee 1926-2016 Update 20th February 2016
American author Harper Lee has died at the ripe acerbic age of 89
Re-reading 'To Kill a Mockingbird' after half a century last year, I then watched an excellent stage performance of 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (review above). I reflected on how millions of us have united to challenge the discrimination faced by folk who are stereotyped and judged solely by their ethnicity, by the colour of their skins. We must maintain this vigilance.
Besides racism, Lee’s story explores poverty, alienation, class, the corruption of innocence, mental health issues and child abuse. On a more gentle note, two rock music acts - Tom Robinson, famous for his radio show and 1982's anthemic ‘Glad to be Gay’, and ‘90s rockers the Boo Radleys – were probably named after characters in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. Harper Lee partly based the odd character of Dill on her childhood friend, author Truman Capote. Dill is fascinated by Boo Radley, who lives in the same street as the Finch family and doesn't leave his house until the story's dramatic finale. Capote wrote in the book's first edition: ‘This is a very fine first novel by a writer with the liveliest sense of life and the most authentic sense of humour.’ Gregory Peck starred as Atticus in the 1962 'To Kill a Mockingbird' film.
A second novel by Harper Lee was released last year, published from a manuscript that was penned before 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. Titled 'Go Set a Watchman', it features an older Scout Finch. Its release came as a surprise; controversies included accusations of racism against Atticus Finch. Some of Harper’s hometown friends said that she had been manipulated into publishing the sequel. From her nursing home, she reacted to journalists' queries by telling them to 'Go Away', a polite and lucid response, though typically crusty by all accounts.