To Kill A Mockingbird

‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was Nelle ‘Harper’ Lee’s 1960’s instantly successful dramatic yet warm masterpiece. As Dylan did in ‘Under Milk Wood’ six years earlier, Lee recalled with amazing detail, the people, issues and events of 1936 in her childhood town of Monroeville in Alabama. The book won a Pulitzer prize and become a worldwide, top ten classic, being voted a book ‘every adult should read before they die’ by the British Librarian Society. Harper (in her private life she was known as Nelle – her Grandmother’s name backwards) was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007 for her contribution to literature.

This stage adaptation was by Christopher Sergel, who met with the hermit-like author to ensure her blessing on his adaptation. Refusing personal publicity, this was Lee’s only book until the Mockingbird sequel, ‘Go Set a Watchman’ 55 years later. She died a year later. It was found that her second book was actually the original draft for Mockingbird.

Since 1990, a play based on the novel has been performed annually in Harper Lee’s hometown. Harper assisted her close friend Truman Capote, the author of ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, in his research for his chilling 1966 book ‘In Cold Blood’. Capote was the basis for the play’s character Dill Harris.

Bravely, this masterpiece is now being brought to life on the Stirling theatre stage. Supported by Stirling City, the season runs in the Stirling Theatre in Morris Place, Innaloo. The curtain rises at 8.00 on Friday 23rd and then every Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings until the 8th May. There are Sunday matinées at 2.00 pm on 25th April and 2nd May. Harper’s 95th birthday would have been halfway through this season.

The language used in this play was typical of the era and would not be condoned today.

The Scene:           The American Great Depression of 1933-35 in the dull Alabama town, Maycomb.

The Set:                 Authentically designed by Jane Sherwood and Ian Wilson, we were given several locations. Some like Maudie’s house was a full fronted Colonial style with cream picket fence and flower baskets, whereas others like the Radley’s ‘spooky house’ was a flyscreen door with an ancient wooden frame. The Finches’ home had a wooden slatted front that was cutaway, allowing a clear view of the kitchen and the family living room. When the front door opened there was a clear view down the passageway inside the house. A wooden bench sat outside where the family met and relaxed. The police station cell was on the side stage apron. The Court House was resplendent with Federation flags, an impressive judge’s bench with the County’s emblem. There were desks for the defence and prosecution, along with benches for the belligerent whites and a gallery for the colours to stand. The audience were the Jury.

Set builders:       Fine, superbly finished, solid sets built by Pauline Gibb, Ian Wilson, Jane Sherwood, Josephine Wayling, Andrew Gemmell, Tim Reisen, Joe Teakle and Ellie Cutbush.

Lighting:               Designed and operated by John Woolrych. The lighting levels changed slowly and subtly as major speeches were delivered. Moonlight scenes were enhanced by a projected video of the moon and clouds.

Sound:                  Designed and smoothly operated by Vanessa Gudgeon

Stage management:       Cally Zanik had some massive scene changes and the cast carried these out whilst the dialogue continued on the other side of the stage. The moves were silent, fast and efficient and thanks to selective lighting were unobtrusive. Splendid work from Cally and her team.

Clear easy to read programme from Fran Gordon and Kevin Forward.

The story is narrated by the local font of knowledge, widow Maudie (Josephine Wayling) and through the eyes of her neighbour, the six-year-old tomboy, Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch (Jennifer Wright). Scout lives with her older brother Jeremy ‘Jem’ (Sean Smith) and their widowed father, Atticus Finch (Justin Markham) a middle-aged lawyer. Their kindly housekeeper, Calpurnia (Ellie Cutbush) acts as a mother to the children.

Jem and Scout befriend a boy named Dill (Luke Williams), who visits Maycomb to stay with his aunt each summer. The three children are terrified by the stories of reclusive Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley (Mark Dyer). Is he still alive? When they are not annoying old Mrs Dubose (Pauline Gibb), the children invent ways to get him out of his house.

                One day, Judge Taylor (Ron Arthurs) and Sherriff Hector ‘Heck’ Tate (Nicolas Kadmos) call around to appoint Atticus to defend Tom Robinson (Kundai Walter Gotore), a married black man with three children, who has been accused of raping a young white woman, Mayella (Siobhán Fowler) the daughter of a poverty-stricken abusing father, Robert E. Lee ‘Bob’ Ewell (Paul Cook). Atticus has been chosen for his unprejudiced attitude to the local negroes. Most of Maycomb’s citizens are in uproar, the  children taunt Jem and Scout for Atticus’s actions, calling him a ‘nigger-lover’.

Whilst at the prison, Atticus is faced by a lynch mob demanding Tom. This crisis is avoided when Scout recognises her classmate’s father, Walter Cunningham (Nigel Goodwin) who was once loaned money by Atticus leading the group, she chats fondly to him. Embarrassed, the father tells the other thugs they should all just go home. Meanwhile, the local racist and inaccurate gossip, Mrs Crawford (Julie Holmshaw) gathers and encourages her friends (Raymond Walter, Danica Szkiela, Joe Teakle and Summer Vlahov) to go to the rape hearing and to let their feelings be known.

In Court the lawyer for the prosecution is Mr Gilmer (Tim Riessen) a man with good verbal skills but poor reasoning. The Clerk of the Court (Mark Dyer) battles to keep order.

The case continues.

When selecting a play to present there are certain topics that directors avoid; children, foreign accents, period pieces and plays that have been made into famous films by superstars – the 1962 film version of this play won three Oscars and is included in the top 120 films ever made. This play has all these points and yet our brave director – or should that be mad woman? – Jane Sherwood decided to bring it to the Perth stage, and she has WON triumphantly!

The youngsters Jennifer – absolutely amazing, Sean – powerful, and newcomer Luke all gave strong performances.

The American accent was mild, convincing and the whole cast had the same drawl, a miracle. With a high drama it would have only taken a minor weak link and the whole tension could have fallen apart – it did not, everyone was well-rehearsed and delivered their vitriolic words beautifully.

Jane selected Justin as Atticus, an actor who has had minor parts in the past but here he rose to the occasion showing empathy, bravery, authority, and high moral standards – they all came through in this fine performance.

The period-perfect costumes were the work of Danica Skiela and Nicole Miller. From the tackety boots to a fine lady’s fan, from a smart cream suit to the daggy clothes of an old lady. Good work.

Although filled with racism and hatred, this masterpiece also has love and comedy. A beautiful story. A weak director could have skimmed over the depth of feelings in the town, but Jane delivered the raw hatred disturbingly and perfectly.

I was very doubtful that such a well-known film could be brought to the stage (this is the first version that I have seen) but I can highly recommend this production that is almost sold out already. Nany congratulations to all concerned.

The season is almost sold out for this DO NOT MISS show.