The central theme of Harper Lee’s much loved novel To Kill a Mockingbird is a plea for tolerance; emphasising the need to walk in the shoes of another person. Taking the hint - Christopher Sergel’s adaptation retains the narrative technique of filtering the story thorough the perception of children gradually realising that the world may not be as they’d imagined.
This approach allows director Max Webster to catch the inquisitive, restless spirit of the young central character with a vibrant, breathless atmosphere in the first act. Snow storms are mistaken for the end of the world, the woods are spooky and the shadow of a local recluse is exaggerated and monstrous. The innocence and simple fun of the opening makes the darker emotion of the later scenes all the more powerful as the play switches to a tense courtroom drama. Scout (Shannon Tarbet) tries to cope with her father Atticus Finch (Nigel Cooke), whom she has held in slight disdain, becoming the conscience of her small Georgia hometown by defending a black man accused of raping a white woman
Webster uses a dazzling range of techniques to ensure a memorable production. A life-size puppet is utilised for a rabid dog and Nicholas Goode’s bluegrass and spiritual music, played live throughout, contributes to the small town atmosphere and helps build the tension. But the techniques are not used for their own sake; they all add to the power of the play. It never feels congested or fussy as Webster sets a rapid pace to which the cast contribute by building designer James Cotterill’s wooden courtroom from pallets and forming trees in the woods.
Cooke is the apparently diffident Atticus Finch - whose slight frame conceals a blazing passion that the actor brings out in a perfectly timed performance. It’s like watching Clark Kent turn into Superman. You can relate to a group of onlookers who respectfully stand as Atticus passes. If Cooke is the moral centre of the play a trio of splendid young actors are its beating heart.
James McConville is a nicely eccentric comic presence. The sensitive interpretation of Rupert Simonian shows the vulnerability of Jem Finch so that his gradual, if bewildered, maturing is plain to see. Tarbet is simply a joy as the tomboy Scout; bringing out the delight that the character takes from life and her inherent decency. Her achingly sincere and direct delivery makes it entirely believable that Scout could defuse the tense lynch-mob atmosphere that Webster builds on-stage.
The Royal Exchange’s production is exactly how a classic piece of literature should be adapted for the stage. It is respectful but not so over-awed by the source material that it becomes sterile. To Kill a Mockingbird is a hard act to follow; Harper Lee never finished another book afterwards.
Hopefully Max Webster and his colleagues do not follow her example and we get more productions of this quality at The Exchange.