Adapted by Christopher Sergel from the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by Timothy Sheader
Company: Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
Date: Thursday 2nd July 2015
This was a fabulous performance, and I’m thrilled we got to see it. The style of presentation meant that it took about fifteen minutes for me to be fully engaged, but after that we had a blissful ride through one of the most intelligent and moving stories ever written. I sniffled, I cried, there was quite a lot of humour and even a gasp, not to mention tumultuous applause at the end. A great afternoon.
I did have one concern beforehand when I saw who the designer was: Jon Bausor. We’ve endured his sets before, most recently at the RSC where his Hamlet design – a disused fencing gym – was so badly lit even the actors were complaining. However I was prepared to give this set a chance, and since the first thing I laid eyes on was a tree with a tyre swing, I put my concerns away and proceeded to enjoy myself.
The seating was in its original configuration with only row A removed: this allowed for wooden steps up to the stage across the width of the front. The stage itself had plain black flooring, and before the start there was a row of books spaced out along the front edge. I assumed these were copies of the novel – correct. I also thought there was a small wooden box near the front, but it disappeared early on and I didn’t see it being used, so perhaps not.
The tree was to the right of centre and about two-thirds of the way back. Not very tall, between fifteen to eighteen feet high, but it was certainly sturdy. The tyre swing hung from the left branch and there was a convenient hole near the top of the trunk. It was also amazingly robust, keeping its leaves throughout the winter despite looking like a deciduous species. Behind all of this were three walls of corrugated iron – a Bausor motif – though as light shone through them from time to time I assume they were actually plastic. A dull shade of grey with plenty of rust patches, they took on a yellow glow towards the end of the first half and white later in the second.
The set was completed by a number of chairs and tables lining the sides of the stage. I spotted a metal frame bed in the back right corner and front left there was a section of picket fence with flowers. A door and section of fence were also available to create the Radley house, but I didn’t see those at the start. The various items were brought forward as needed and whisked away again very smoothly when their time in the spotlight was up.
With the house lights still up, the cast came on in ordinary clothes, picked up their books and arranged themselves on the steps and stage to do the opening narration. (As there were still empty seats in the front row, it took me a moment or two to realise that this was the cast.) We learned of Jem’s accident and the differing ideas as to which event was the start of that whole episode. A song began, a solo accompanied by ukulele, and during this the cast took out chalk and drew on the stage. A house emerged, some flowers and lines, while words such as “OUR HOUSE” and “STREET” delineated the various sections of the stage. Scout ran on in the midst of this activity – I think there were snippets of narration going on as always – and took up her position on top of the tyre. One of the actresses put on a pinafore apron and headband to become Calpurnia, and then we were in to the dialogue. I noticed that the actors used their own accents for narration and American ones for both their character’s dialogue and quoted speech from the book.
This mixture of narrative and dialogue went on for a bit as we met most of the people inhabiting Scout’s world; Atticus had yet to return home and ‘Boo’ Radley was as elusive as ever. The part where Jem was explaining something to Dill, a newcomer to the town, was the section when I felt there was too much going on. The children moved over to the tree and then mimed the storytelling, there was narration going on at the front of the stage to tell us what was happening, someone else was scribbling more details on the stage and to top it all off there was more music. Where was I meant to be focussing? Fortunately the storm broke at that point and the narration gave way to more sustained performances from the actors. The company sat at the sides of the stage until they were needed for a role, at which point they would put on a piece of clothing to identify their character and get stuck in. It also helped that Atticus came back around that time, so we could begin to develop our understanding of his character and how he was influencing his children.
The story rattled through from there, giving us some laughs and building to serious sniffles when Scout’s intervention defused the situation at the jailhouse. The next scene showed Scout and her brother in bed, with Scout’s innocent questions about their dead mother being overheard by Atticus. The children and Atticus slipped off stage and the company, after moving the bed back to its corner, grouped themselves round the front of the stage and put their books down, open to the place they’d reached. The musician finished playing, put his own book down, and they all left the stage for the interval.
The tyre swing disappeared during the break and the furniture was rearranged ready for part two. When the company returned for the second half, one did the narration while the others set up the courtroom scene. The judge was on the right with the typewriter table further back. The prosecution, Atticus and the defendant, Tom Robinson, were on the left and there was a bench seat across the back on that side too. The witness box (or chair) was centre back.
The children, including Dill who had run away from his neglectful parents to be with his friends, snuck into the courtroom and sat with the preacher up in the balcony, reserved for ‘coloured folk’. The ‘evidence’, if we can call it that, was pitifully inadequate, so the fact that Atticus’ cross-examination of the alleged rape victim would probably not be allowed in a modern courtroom was irrelevant: we could see clearly what had happened and were only concerned that justice should be done. Sadly, it was not to be. The prosecution’s closing argument was done in mime behind Scout and Dill, who had taken a break from the trial and were talking on the front steps, but we got the full Atticus for the defence with the audience standing in for the jury. The gasp came during this scene when Mr Ewell, the abusive, angry father of the alleged rape victim, spat in Atticus’ face.
Despite Atticus promising to appeal the jury’s verdict, Tom made a feeble attempt to escape and was shot. This meant that the only people whom Mr Ewell could take his anger out on were Atticus and his family. So when Jem and Scout – she was dressed in a ham costume – made their way home from the school pageant late one dark night, it wasn’t hard to guess who attacked them by grabbing Jem and then Scout. Fortunately, as the Sheriff explained later, young Mr Radley showed up, took the children away and then Mr Ewell ‘fell on his knife’. Atticus seemed to have some strange idea that Jem, whose arm had been broken in the attack, had somehow wrestled the knife away from Bob Ewell and then stabbed him, but in the circumstances he can be forgiven for such delusional thinking. No, as the Sheriff said, getting ‘Boo’ Radley caught up in the publicity would be unkind to the man (though it didn’t stop some of the local matrons leaving him presents now and again).
The final bit of narration was done by the company. They were grouped in the Radley’s front yard to the right of the stage and looking across at Atticus. He was sitting next to the bed where Jem was asleep, while Scout sat on his knee. As they came to end of the story, the company closed their books, put them down where they stood, and the lights went out – a perfect ending. We gave them bucket loads of applause in return for the fantastic time they’d given us: I hope they were as satisfied with the exchange as we were.
Today’s young performers were Ava Potter as Scout, Tommy Rodger as Jem and Connor Brundish as Dill. All three were excellent, and I particularly liked Ava’s tomboyishness, perfect for that role. Robert Sean Leonard was a wonderful Atticus and the company filled in the other parts magnificently, switching from narration to performance to set changers to musicians so smoothly that it took me quite some time to spot who was playing which part. One minor downside to the non-performing cast sitting at the sides during the court scene was that they didn’t react to events in the trial as a court audience would, slightly reducing the impact of the scene. But it’s a small point, and overall the production worked so well that it didn’t get in the way of our enjoyment.
© 2015 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me