Rafe Spall as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
On Theatre

Atticus updated

A new production of To Kill a Mockingbird is masterful

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Plays about racial injustice, the running-sore legacy of slavery and suitable forms of atonement for the sins of forefathers are a dime a dozen right now. Both Broadway and the West End are sensitive to the accusation that they largely fielded white plays for white audiences and are seeking to redress the balance. The result can turn out to be less outstanding drama than a dutiful didacticism.

That, at least, is not a charge that can be levelled at To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s 1960 novel about a court case in a small town in Alabama in the 1930s which pits the local lawyer, Atticus Finch, first against a white rapist framing a black man for a crime and, as the story unfolds, against a justice system which is itself complicit in racism. 

This adaptation, transferred from a Broadway run, is written by The West Wing’s Svengali of snappy dialogue, Aaron Sorkin, and directed by Bartlett Sher. Sher is one of my favourite reworkers of dusty musicals repertoire. With the glossy assurance of Sorkin’s dialogue and Miriam Buether’s elegant unobtrusive palate of faded 1930s colours, the show is a visual winner too. 

Updating the story imposes a conundrum, not least because the posthumous publication of Go Set a Watchman in 2015 casts more doubt on the motivations and racial outlook of Finch (Rafe Spall) than Lee herself suggested in the novel. 

At times, there is too clearly an imposition of East Coast, anti-Trump, wish fulfillment here

And even if we discount this bizarre quirk of literary historiography, you wouldn’t have to be a paid-up member of Black Lives Matter to see the portrayal of the conflict over the judicially-ordered deaths of black people purely through the eyes of white adults and children as antiquated. So many roles have to shift, or be enhanced, to make this play work and Tom Robinson, (Jude Owusu) is given more lines to reflect on the impossibility of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. 

Sorkin also inverts the ambling structure of Lee’s novel, as any TV director would: bringing us into the courtroom drama, where Spall’s showy Finch coquettes, wheedles and argues his way through the thicket of lies told by Tom Ewell (a brilliantly nasty Patrick O’Kane) and supported by the traumatised, abused daughter Mayella (Poppy Lee Friar).

It brings sensitive drama’s default message in 2022 — that it is the job of the young to re-educate the old and the Finch children Jem (Harry Redding) and Scout (Gwyneth Keyworth) chastise their evasive dad so roundly that Scout appears to be prepping for the part of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

At times, there is too clearly an imposition of East Coast, anti-Trump, wish fulfillment here, most obviously in the handling of the maid — and ersatz mother to the young Finches — Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete). In the novel, Calpurnia’s views are more fatalistic than radical: “When they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.” 

In this production, her verbal assaults against her boss are a hefty contrivance. Her sudden inversion of the power dynamic feels like pandering. Do progressive audiences now need their views mirrored to feel at home with a story written at the start of the 1960s about the 1930s?

Never mind: Mockingbird remains a powerful, unsettling story, told with a mixture of elegy and brio. A bit of Broadway gloss right now felt like a theatrical tonic in the West End and thankfully, for half the price of Manhattan.

The concerns about patriotism turning into nationalism are proxies for a critique of a post-Brexit Britain

More battles rage over at the Donmar Warehouse, this time of the iron-clashing variety as Kit Harington, the dishy wolf-whisperer in Game of Thrones tumbles on stage in the din of a very busy Henry V. Harington’s Henry is a man wistfully remembering his days as reckless, feckless Hal. No prizes for guessing which royal apostate today might be being channelled.

Now on the throne, Henry morphs from slick kingly CEO to desperado war leader. Echoes of Ukraine are everywhere in the sheer mess of the shot and shell and smoke which at one point envelop the stage entirety, leaving the audience too in the fog of war as we try to follow the action in sporadic bursts of clarity. 

The rousing Harfleur speech cannot help but echo the elegant encouragement from Volodymyr Zelensky. But Harington’s strongest scenes, befitting a screen star, are the moments when the noise of this frantic production abates and the light falls on him to reveal the tension, drives and uncertainties of Henry’s mercurial character.

The proximity of the Ukraine crisis also shows up a fatal flaw in Max Webster’s version, which is bluntly that the concerns about patriotism turning into nationalism here are so glaringly proxies for a critique of a post-Brexit Britain. If we had any doubts, the ending image of a disintegrating St George’s cross rams home the “look what you’ve done” homily. 

With unfortunate timing for the Donmar, it is a reminder of the tendency of directors to lose proportion or finesse when dealing with events on the home front. Overall, it’s not a great Henry V, because as Big Will (sort of) put it somewhere else: you can book as much screen stardust as you like, but sound and fury isn’t all you need to make a mark.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover