To Kill a Mockingbird

Harper Lee, adapted by Aaron Sorkin
Gielgud Theatre

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Rafe Spall (Atticus Finch) Credit: Marc Brenner
Gwyneth Keyworth (Scout Finch), Harry Redding (Jem Finch), David Moorst (Dill Harris) Credit: Marc Brenner
Jude Owusu (Tom Robinson) Credit: Marc Brenner

In a racially-divided small town in Alabama in 1935, during the Great Depression, a black man is falsely accused of raping a white girl. She in fact tried to seduce him. His innocence is proved conclusively during the trial. The all-white jury still find him guilty because he is black and they are outraged that a black man should have the temerity to feel pity for a white woman.

First, there was the semi-autobiographical novel by Harper Lee which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960. Then there was the film in 1962, scripted by Horton Foote, which won many Oscars in 1962. Gregory Peck played Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer, a great white liberal hero and saviour, who made a big mistake when he thought justice would prevail.

Now there is a stage adaptation, originally seen at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway with Jeff Daniels in the lead. 90 years on, things are different. The past is another country. The novel has been rethought by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Bartlett Sher for a modern audience. Harper Lee’s estate disapproved of the changes and sued.

Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch believes, “you can find goodness in everyone. It’s your job to get around inside their skin.” Aaron Sorkin’s Atticus Finch, played by Rafe Spall, makes this liberal virtue a flaw in his character. He shows respect when he should be condemning.

The present production is conceived within the context of Donald Trump’s notorious response to the violence at the nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017. He said there were “very fine people on both sides.”

The most moving moment in the film is when the black community, who have been relegated to the crowded balcony above the courtroom, all stand, out of respect for Atticus. Sorkin has cut this moment completely feeling that, for today’s audience, it sends out completely the wrong message.

Sorkin gives Atticus Finch’s black housekeeper, played by Pamela Nonvete, a bigger role and louder critical voice. Jude Owusu is the falsely accused man. Poppy Lee Friar is genuinely pathetic as his accuser. Patrick O’Kane is utterly evil as her abusive dad. The children are played by grown-up actors who become the play’s narrators. David Moorst has the scene-stealing role of the child who is based on the very young and very precocious Truman Capote.

The production lasts just under three hours including an interval. I suspect many theatregoers are going to find this too long and feel the play is over once the trial, the high spot, ends; and that what comes after could be cut.

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch