Molly Dowrick Reviews a theatre adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird
Growing up in the West Country, I’ve never experienced discrimination and so had never considered its implications, but when I first read Harper Lee’s stunning and thought-provoking novel To Kill a Mockingbird when I was sixteen; I was appalled at the ways in which black people and the working class were victimised and oppressed.
At school, although I was aware of negative racial stereotypes and oppression, particularly in the USA, I was somewhat unaware of the extent of the racial disharmony and class conflict. To Kill a Mockingbird tells the story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in 1935 Alabama who is defending Tom Robinson, an innocent black man, who has been accused of raping a white woman. The story of how the town reacted to the trial is told by Atticus’ six year old daughter, Scout, allowing readers to question racial expectations and discrimination through the eyes of a child who sees no importance in race or class. Emotional, but at the times comical and extremely thought-provoking, Lee’s novel is worth reading if you’d like your presumptions and expectations of race, gender and class challenged. As an avid theatre-goer, my family and I went to see the Regent’s Park Theatre adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Theatre Royal Plymouth last month.
Although unique, thought-provoking and hailed as a production of ‘tremendous heart and emotional depth’ by the Daily Telegraph, I preferred the book of To Kill a Mockingbird as it fuelled a more emotional response from me. Nevertheless, the Regents Park Theatre adaptation certainly puts emphasis on the story-telling itself, inviting the audience to become involved in the production and make their own decision as to Tom Robinson’s guilt or innocence.
The greatest strength of the production was undoubtedly the child actors. Although I’m usually a cynic to the use of young people in theatre, I was impressed by the youngsters’ superb acting which enabled the production to showcase the ‘novel’s warmth and childish wonder’ (Time Out magazine). The engaging child actors enabled the audience to see the cruel truth of racial divisions and discrimination, as we, like the children, questioned why race and class is an issue in society. For the performance that I watched, Scout was played by Ava Potter, making her professional theatre debut. I was amazed at this, that an actress who had never previously been involved in professional theatre could portray her character with a wonderful kindness and emotion. I was moved to tears on several occasions due to Scout’s amazement at the world and inability to understand the harsh realities of race relations and the gaps between the rich and poor. Additionally, Arthur Franks portrayed a lovely, likable Jem (Scout’s older brother) who showed courage and a compassionate willingness to look after his sister. A third child, Scout and Jem’s friend Dill, is significant in the story, acting as a gateway to children’s ever-increasing imagination and desire for adventure, while echoing Scout’s childish innocence and sweet disposition. Dill was based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote and Connor Brundish wonderfully portrayed the youngster who became fascinated by the Finch’s mysterious neighbour Boo Radley.
Another great strength of the production was the way it told Scout’s story. Lee’s novel is semi-autobiographical: Lee grew up in the small-town of Monroeville, Alabama, in the 1930s; where her father was a qualified lawyer and also worked as an editor for the local newspaper. When Lee was ten years old, a black man in her town was accused of raping a white woman and was convicted and sentenced to death. Her father’s newspaper discussed the story, often protesting the man’s innocence, leading to the man’s sentence being changed to life imprisonment. At first I was sceptical of the way that the stage production of To Kill a Mockingbird used the company of actors to read Scout’s story, as what makes the novel so remarkable, in my opinion, is that the protagonist Scout is recounting her younger days and telling her own story. The theatre production employed multiple actors to retell Scout’s story, reading from various editions of the novel in order to set the scene and introduce new characters as they arrived on stage. After a few scenes, I got used to the spontaneity of actors reading a few paragraphs from the novel and liked the way it made the story feel shared among the actors and audience. However, debatably it would have been more effective to have just one individual sharing the story, perhaps an older Scout thinking back to her younger days. Moreover, disappointingly, the narration was carried out in the actor’s own voices – a far cry from the confident and attention-grabbing Southern drawl of Alabama and detracting from the idea that Scout is a young Southern American telling her own story.
To Kill a Mockingbird also effectively presents ideas over the controversies of the American justice system, particularly in the 1930s where judges were known to listen to rumours and speculation and adhere to unjust and untrue racial stereotypes of the era. To Kill a Mockingbird is likely to take some inspiration from the notorious ‘Scottsboro Boys’ case of an alleged gang rape of two white girls by nine black teenagers in Alabama in 1931 as well as the racial disharmony that led to Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat for a white person on a bus in 1955, and the chaos that ensued. Although some academics and teachers argue that To Kill a Mockingbird has become outdated in its approach to racial discrimination and attitudes to Black individuals, I would argue that the novel is still relevant in 2015. Even today racial discrimination affects society hugely, often impacting policemen, lawyers’ and judges’ daily decisions. Law Professor and Legal Director Bill Quigley commented that ‘the biggest crime in the U.S. criminal justice system is that it is a race-based institution where African-Americans are directly targeted and punished in a much more aggressive way than white people.’ and this is clearly shown by the 2014 violence in Ferguson, Missouri where the killing of unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown, by a white police officer is thought to have been racially motivated. In fact, despite Black people only being 67% of Ferguson’s population, 93% of people arrested in Ferguson are African American (US Department of Justice, 2015), suggesting that race has a significant impact on accusations of crime and violence.
The portrayal of injustice in To Kill a Mockingbird is visually striking and emotionally-driven in both the novel and the production. As the children watch Atticus try to defend Tom Robinson, the atmosphere in the ‘courtroom’ becomes increasingly heated and scary during the performance. Atticus faced the audience during this scene, making us feel included as he outlined why the accusation against Tom Robinson was false, allowing us to feel a part of the scene and make our own judgement.
With the government’s frequent changes to the British education system and school curriculum, it comes as no surprise that novels taught at schools are often challenged or disputed by academics, teachers, politicians and wider society for not being relevant today, or suitable for the 2015 school classroom. In 2014, education secretary Michael Gove asked for an updated English literature school curriculum, which saw ‘plans to drop classic American novels including To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men from the GCSE curriculum’, as Gove ordered more ‘Brit lit’, for example, Shakespeare, Chaucer and Jane Austen. In an article for the Guardian, Christopher Bigsby, Professor of American Studies at the University of East Anglia, commented that a ‘union jack of culture’ was now hovering over Gove’s education department while more than 30,000 people signed an online petition against British exam board OCR’s decision to remove Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Crucible from its GCSE specification due to Mr Gove’s guidelines last year.
Whilst it’s important that students are aware of the roots of literature in their own country, I find it saddening that literature from overseas is not encouraged in schools and has been taken out of the curriculum. British literature undoubtedly challenges our presumptions and raises questions around important themes such as love and loss; however I would argue that American literature and other international literatures challenge British students to think outside of their own lives and empathise with individuals different to themselves. No matter how removed we are from Harper Lee’s Alabama, we can still learn from Scout’s story.
Through To Kill a Mockingbird, we are able to go beyond what is just printed on the page. Harper Lee teaches us to empathise with others and consider different perspectives to our own, as ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’.