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1 April 2022

Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a fierce, funny and near-flawless stage adaptation

Not a homage but a necessary departure, the play interrogates the novel’s approach to race and addresses the elements that have aged badly.

By Katherine Cowles

The charge often levelled against adaptations is that they do not live up to the original. But there’s a worse crime – I’ll call it “audiobook-ism”: when the theatre becomes simply another lavish way to read aloud the source material. For Aaron Sorkin, tasked with reimagining To Kill a Mockingbird for the stage, the temptation to drag and drop must have been great: this is an all-American classic, after all; an untouchable, semi-sacred text. Never mind that aspects of its racial politics are unpalatable today, or that its protagonist, Atticus Finch, once the high-minded hero of liberals, now looks more like the white saviour of Harper Lee’s gothic fairy tale. But Sorkin, I’m happy to report, is found not guilty – on both counts. 

This fierce, funny and near-flawless production is not an homage to the 1960 book (or the 1962 Gregory Peck film), but an examination of it. Not since the days of GCSE English has To Kill a Mockingbird been an unambiguous display of human decency, and Sorkin, with director Bartlett Sher, has addressed the parts of it (the narrow roles of black characters and the glorification of benevolent white ones) that have – as the schoolkids say – aged badly. One imagines Lee would have approved, even if her estate did not: before the show appeared on Broadway in 2018, lawyers sued producers for departing from the “spirit of the novel” (the case was later settled). In the Black Lives Matter era, this departure was a necessary act of deviance and defiance, and it has paid off.  

It should come as no surprise that Sorkin – so at home in the houses of law (The Trial of the Chicago 7) and American democracy (The West Wing) – has reorganised his Mockingbird as a courtroom drama. Recall that Lee only introduces the trial of Tom Robinson (Jude Owusu) – an African American man held on trumped-up rape charges, and defended by lawyer Atticus (revived by Rafe Spall, on which more later) – midway through the novel, having walked us through the childhood adventures of Scout and Jem Finch, and their paranoid fixation on the mysterious Boo Radley. On stage, the trial becomes a framing device that grips the audience from beginning to end and drives the plot forward, giving a rhythm and equilibrium to a bottom-heavy story. 

Scout and Jem are now played by adults (Gwyneth Keyworth and Harry Redding respectively), who are joined – and nearly upstaged – by their friend Dill (David Moorst, wonderfully camp and precocious, is the clown in charge of light relief). I had doubts – grown-ups in dungarees! – but the conceit works: the characters narrate the story from a distance, looking on at the father they worshipped with a little due scepticism – cloudy-eyed, still, but combative. 

All change, then. But we are still in the same “old tired town” of Maycomb, Alabama (hammy accents are inevitable), and this is still Lee’s masterpiece. The Gielgud is a sprawling barn done up in Depression-era greys: red, weathered panelling stands in for stage curtains; murky roof windows struggle – there’s a metaphor here – to let in the light. Scout and co bound around energetically as wheel-on sets move into place: screen doors glide across the stage; a whole porch rises up from within. 

Under Jennifer Tipton’s lighting direction, Maycomb is a gloomy place, but inside the courtroom characters are seized under an oppressive white. There sits Owusu’s Robinson (who still needs more to do and say), wet-cheeked, dignified and stone-still; how he contrasts with his accuser Mayella Ewell (Poppy Lee Friar), who, hunched like a swamp willow, writhes about as she delivers a staggeringly racist, N-word-laden tirade. Friar is sensational, as is Patrick O’Kane who, as her abusive father Bob, is pure alt-right evil, malevolent and rabid as a feral dog. 

But, in the end, it is Atticus who is put on trial: still a saintly man, of course, but guilty of the misheld belief that there is good in all people – even the most irredeemable, vile racists. Spall is suave and gracious, but resists the urge to play Atticus like Gregory Peck’s upright statesman; he has a casual kind of saunter and stutter, an easy confidence that verges on complacency. A whiff of superiority betrays his ignorance and underscores his rage. He is skewered by his black maid Calpurnia, played with grace and grit by Pamela Nomvete. She is tired – of Atticus’s faith in bad people and the US’s faith in a broken legal system – and she is angry. Only now, in Sorkin’s version, she gets to say so. 

This is not a subtle play, but there is a quietly brilliant moment towards its end. Atticus learns Tom Robinson is dead, gunned down by police while trying to flee jail. Calpurnia asks – demands – to know how many times they shot him, but Atticus equivocates. We watch her shoulders stiffen and her jaw clench tight. “How. Many. Times?” The answer is 17. A chill catches in the stalls, and seems to linger until the closing scene, when Scout exhales: “All rise.” The audience are on their feet.

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