Theatre in Wales

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Sparkling, brutal truthfulness

To Kill a Mockingbird

Clwyd Theatr Cymru , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , November-25-01
It’s a hot summer in 1935, in Maycomb, Alabama. Eight-year-old Scout, also known as Jean Louise Finch is approaching the end of her innocence as she witnesses an inferno of guilt, hatred, anger, and destruction in the courtroom where her father, the eloquent, wise, and courageous lawyer Atticus is defending Tom Robinson, a young black man. Robinson has been accused of raping Mayella Ewell, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a destitute, alcoholic, and violent white widower. Clwyd Theatr Cymru’s play, adapted from Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” is unfortunately as relevant now as it was when it was published. Lee’s child’s-eye-view inquiry into the causes of racism in particular and prejudice, hatred, self-delusion, mob mentality, injustice, and the conversion of powerlessness into anarchic violence in general hasn’t aged much in the forty-one years since she wrote it.

pic  Jonathan Dockar-Drysdale. The set, designed by Mark Bailey, consists of a huge square of floor, warped and raked up from both the upstage and downstage edges, culminating in a low hill at the centre. It’s covered with what appears to be the dirt or dust of the Alabama farmland outside the town of Maycomb, desiccated by the southern sunlight and exhausted by three hundred years of farming. The citizens of Maycomb, Alabama are also exhausted—by the economic hardship of the Great Depression and by three hundred years of racism and oppression. A clutter of props is piled on top of a rusted-out car in one upstage corner. A pointed rock juts up out of the earth in another. And the space in the middle becomes all the locations in Lee’s story—always without allowing the audience to forget the land that is giving out under the character’s feet, but which is only the top layer of the town’s problems.

As Scout, Catrin Rhys (who played Rita in Torch Theatre’s A Prayer for Wings earlier this year) is a surprisingly believable eight-year-old, although her voice is perhaps a bit too cute and squeaky. Other standouts in the cast include Simon Watts as her adolescent brother, Jem; Enoch Frost as Tom Robinson; Tamara McKoy-Patterson as Robinson’s suffering but strong wife, Helen; and Maldwyn John as Sheriff Heck Tate, who wishes the system would let him do the right thing more often than he is allowed to. Atticus Finch himself, as played by Gwyn Vaughan Jones, comes across as static and disappointing, but this adaptation does not allow Atticus any of the complexities that appear in the book.

The script, written in 1970, is by Christopher Sergel, who also adapted Cheaper By the Dozen and is currently President of the Dramatic Publishing Company, which according to the programme was ‘founded by his great-uncle in 1885 and has been run by the Sergel family ever since.’ Sergel’s dramatisation makes Atticus a hero with a few difficulties but no complications. It does not address the issues, subtle but vital in the book, concerning Atticus’ struggling with his own position as a member of the ‘Southern aristocracy,’ and with the class issues that trouble Maycomb society. It does not address his interaction with his daughter as she refuses to stop being a tomboy and become a ‘lady’—in the novel, Lee suggests that this is one difference between her and the disapproving townspeople which may cause her, some time in the future, to know what it feels like to walk in the shoes of an ‘outsider within.’ At one point, Sergel begins, then without resolution abandons a scene in which Scout, bewildered by the townspeople’s inexplicable attitudes towards Atticus, Robinson, and his wife, asks her father to define rape. In this version, Atticus’ black housekeeper Calpurnia takes on the burdens of her employer, Scout, Helen, and the society at large, but does not struggle with any personal conflicts or questions of her own. In the playhouse, as in Atticus’ house, she plays a supporting role, selflessly taking care of the others. Finally, there are several group choral numbers, and in most places they seem inappropriate and don’t work. Either the lyrics are heavy-handed (blues songs when the jury is out deciding Robinson’s fate) or the catharsis of the moment seems to demand silence for contemplation and the music becomes jarring.

However, Sergel does explore the juxtaposition of Scout’s relationship with her loving and heroic father with the destructive relationship between Mayella Ewell and her father: and Clwyd Theatr’ treatment of this is more daring and confrontational than Horton Foote’s interpretation in the film. This production makes it inescapably clear that whereas Scout gains open-mindedness, courage, and strength from her interaction with her father, Ewell senior’s interaction with Mayella demonstrates every inexplicable ugliness the town seeks a scapegoat to explain away.

The play is mostly well done, and it grows stronger in the second act, becoming powerful and riveting toward the end. If you have the chance to see it, this is a performance you do not want to miss. If you have a chance to read the novel, do so. Despite the weaknesses of the adaptation, I found this a visually effective, engaging, living illumination of Lee’s alternately witty, sparkling, and brutally truthful text.

Reviewed by: Rebecca Nesvet

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