[Go Set a Scout]
The trouble with To Kill A Mockingbird is that the Pulitzer Prize winner’s literary composition does not lend itself to theatrical narrative structure. The trial, in which a black man is accused of attempting to rape a white woman, is a MacGuffin. Tom Robinson is the catalyst for a litmus test on racism proffered by a white woman in 1960 as a response to the Civil Rights Movement. The events both leading up to and following those in the court room tell the real story. This is the story of a girl learning who her father truly is and what he stands for, and how that leads to the development of her own moral compass. There is no climax in either Harper Lee’s novel or Christopher Sergel’s play. The novel is a journey, a slow burn of lessons learned over the years, which leaves the reader in quiet reflection. The play, confined to 1935 and consequently omitting significant moments and their cumulative effect, simply leaves the audience in want.
What gives the novel such impact is that it is told through the perspective of a child over an extended period of time during the formative years of her social understanding and reasoning. Innocence is the tool used to illustrate prejudices, both naïve and heinous. In Sergel’s stage adaptation, this aspect is almost entirely lost. Unable to provide an inner monologue, Sergel continues the literary convention of telling instead of the theatrical one of showing, relying on narration and exposition, from characters other than the novel’s protagonist, Scout, as opposed to action or subtext, the former two being incredibly cheap script devices to employ, which pay off in mere nickels. Without Scout as its navigator, the play is at a loss as to whose story it is.
Director Colin McColl drives through the first act, a series of vignettes that are stitched together like pages torn from a book, which ends up running shorter than the second on opening night. When we reach the court room, the too few moments in which we’ve observed Atticus’ interactions with his children lack the poignant reflection of the latter required to make their, and our, witnessing of his moral superiority culminating in the condemnation of racial prejudice truly resonate thematically. Atticus may be an epitomic character of morality in literature, but without the ebb and flow of pacing both his appearance and omnipresence in the play, he lacks the theatrical qualities necessary to transition from page to stage.
Atticus Finch is a vanilla character, his measured temperament only inciting drama in opposition to those around him. To accommodate this, Simon Prast avoids gratuitous acting choices, and focuses on driving the dialogue with a simplicity and weight to enforce the justification of each word spoken, and even when he is forced to rail against a familial attack with a cry of fear and anger, he manages to do so with an emotional content that has not been provided in the text.
James Maeva gives a faithful portrayal of Tom Robinson and the children’s dynamics drives their scenes, which will allow them to play more once they slow down and break up their thought processes. With the exception of Claire Dougan and Holly Hudson (who provides the most emotionally charged performance in the play) , the rest of the cast are relegated to the footnotes of their literary counterparts and appear to have accepted the limitations their impressions now make. Accents are relatively stable, though the short neutral Kiwi vowels occasionally slip through and the articulation in the first act needs to equate to the second. Ironically, it is Hudson and Scott Wills with the most “regional” accents who are the easiest to hear.
Andrew Foster’s set design pushes the action to the forefront of the Civic stage, a backdrop of rolling storm-clouds that provide a sense of inevitable doom. Batons of hanging wood counteract the height of the stage and again draw the eye towards the action. Lit by Bryan Caldwell, they personify the history of past “justice”, while John Gibson’s staccato sound design provides a discordant undertone to the harsh realities that exist in the culture of the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.
Auckland Theatre Company’ production of To Kill A Mockingbird is not a bad show. It is an okay presentation of a shoddy script. But why are we so agreeable in accepting anything less than brilliant in both the choice and interpretation of a play from the closest thing we have to a national theatre company? To Kill A Mockingbird changed my life when I read it, as I have no doubt it did for millions of others, reinforcing an optimistic moral integrity with which to live one’s life. I was not moved by this production. I felt no sense of injustice. No anger at the way the world works. No compassion bordering on self-crippling sorrow.
All art is a reflection of the human condition, a mirror with which to view society, and sometimes even a hammer to shape it. It does not deal in trivialities. Sergel’s script is as pale as Atticus’ suit and ATC have done little to mine the gems that still exist within Lee’s mangled story. If you’re a fan of the book, there’s nothing more to gain from its theatrical adaptation. If you’ve never read it, do yourself a favour and save yourself the difference in ticket price.
To Kill A Mockingbird is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at The Civic until May 22. For details see ATC.