Friday 20 April 2018

Preview: Mockingbird's power to mesmerise

Enduring appeal: Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird will not be disappointed as the stage version incorporates the original text at every opportunity
Enduring appeal: Fans of To Kill a Mockingbird will not be disappointed as the stage version incorporates the original text at every opportunity

Anne Marie Scanlon

Few books evoke such deeply held sentiment as Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. Lee's only novel to date (her much anticipated second book Go Set a Watchman is due out in July this year), To Kill A Mockingbird has never been out of print in the 55 years since it was first published in 1960 (despite Lee's publishers and editors thinking it would not sell particularly well) and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1961.

The plot and characters of the book are based on Harper Lee's own childhood family and neighbours. The story is set in Maycomb, narrated by Scout and follows her adventures with her older brother Jem and their friend Dill (who is modelled on Lee's childhood friend Truman Capote).

The trio are obsessed with seeing their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley who never comes out of his rather rundown house. When a local black man, Tom Robinson, is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell, the judge appoints Atticus Finch, Scout and Jem's father, to defend him. Finch, based on Lee's own father, is a man who both espouses and lives the values of tolerance, respect and empathy (he tells his children that to understand someone they must stand in their shoes).

Given the reverence in which the book is held it's hardly surprising that it took until 1990 before Christopher Sergel adapted To Kill A Mockingbird for the stage. The current production of that adaptation, directed by Timothy Sheader, began in 2013 at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Despite the show now being indoors, the impressive, yet simple, set gives it a breezy, outdoors feel. The innovative out-of-doors look is completed by a corrugated iron fence at the back and sides of the stage and a big, extremely realistic looking tree, (which was part of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony).

Fans and devotees of the book will not be disappointed, as the stage production relies heavily upon the original text and incorporates it into the show at every available opportunity. As the show begins, the stage is empty and actors begin to emerge from the audience, each with a different edition of the book, reading aloud from the opening chapter. This narration continues throughout the show as the actors jump in and out of various roles, with the exception of Atticus, played with calm and dignity by Daniel Betts, and the three children - Scout, an impressive Jemima Bennett making her professional stage debut, Jem, an understated but powerful performance from Harry Bennet, and Dill, given all the oomph that a mini-Truman Capote could want by Leo Heller.

The four central performances are compelling, but when Zackary Momoh takes the stage as Tom Robinson during the courtroom scene in the second act he is quite simply mesmerising. In the segregated courtroom there is no room for the children so they go upstairs to the 'Negro' gallery. On account of his race, Robinson is considered guilty from the start. The only people who do not know they are attending a show trial are the three children. It is heart-breaking when Jem is so convinced that the jury will acquit Robinson, given the remarkable performance his father has given and the incontrovertible evidence he's established. When Atticus explains to his disillusioned son, "Courage is when you're licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what," it becomes obvious why this character has been so loved by generations of readers.

To Kill A Mockingbird is at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from Monday, May 4, until Saturday, May 9. Tickets begin at €15.

Ticketmaster (0818) 719 377

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