The Theatreguide.London Review
Kill A Mockingbird
Gielgud Theatre Spring 2022
Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of the 1960 Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird, now having its Covid-delayed run at the Gielgud Theatre, certainly generated a good deal of advance concern over its faithfulness to the novel and its depiction of race.
However, the play doesn't radically deviate from its source material, treats the issue of racism sensitively, and is thoughtfully engaging, well performed and often humorous.
All the same, it’s unlikely that its basic storyline of the white lawyer Atticus trying unsuccessfully to defend the black male Tom Robinson from a false allegation of rape would be written in 2022. It is just too centred on active white liberals concerned about almost entirely passive black people.
The play switches from the novel’s single narrator's point of view of the grown-up Scout, to one shared by Scout (Gwyneth Keyworth) her brother Jem (Harry Redding) and their friend Dill Harris (David Moorst).
They open the show by telling us that the story ends with the death of Bob Ewell (Patrick O’Kane), though we have to wait the rest of the play's 170 minutes running time to find out exactly how he died.
They occasionally interrupt the story to comment on the actions of its characters. At one point Jem rages across the stage at the memory of what he sees as Atticus’s (Rafe Spall) refusal to fight.
Atticus is also taken to task on a number of occasions by his black housekeeper Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete) whose role in the play is more assertive than in the novel. In response to his claim that ‘I believe in being respectful,’ she icily comments ‘No matter who you’re disrespecting by doin’ it.’
Atticus certainly stretches that respect saying ‘You never really understand a person, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’ even if that happens to be applied to Klu Klux Klan members. When asked which side of the Civil War he would have been on, he says he would be under the bed.
The play doesn't soften its central issue of racism, repeatedly using the word ‘nigger,’ but also challenging the disrespect that word and others such as the use of ‘boy’ for Tom Robinson (Jude Owusu) imply.
However, there isn’t really much opportunity to empathise with the black victims of that racism. The narration being spoken entirely by white characters along with the humour also helps to distance us further.
The script may lack sharpness and at times feel quite cosy but its characters' easy believable conversations and its riveting courtroom struggle keep you watching even when you know the book backwards.
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