My tenuous reason for grouping these two plays together is that they both have “bird” in their titles and they both made me cry: Birdsong at the Comedy Theatre back in 2010 and more recently, To Kill A Mockingbird at the Barbican Centre. I wasn’t the only one blubbing – audience sniffles were audible at both. My less tenuous reason is that they are both stage adaptations of novels (I do try to think these things through, you know…)
Originally a Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production, To Kill A Mockingbird, toured the UK before arriving at the Barbican in July – nicely timed to coincide with the publication of Harper Lee’s keenly awaited second novel Go Set A Watchman.
Set in the deep south of America in the 1930s, To Kill A Mockingbird shows injustice and racial prejudice as seen through the eyes of six year old Scout and her older brother, Jem. Their widowed father, Atticus Finch, is a lawyer and the moral backbone of Maycomb County. When Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, the Finch children learn hard lessons about life and justice as they see what Robinson and their father endure.
One of the things I especially liked about Christopher Sergel’s adaptation was its faithfulness to Lee’s original novel. The play opens with the entire cast on stage, each reading excerpts from different editions of the book. At other stages in the play, the books are taken up again as members of the cast take turns in narrating proceedings. It kept the play connected with the original text but did not feel clumsy or contrived.
The set design by John Bausor was pared back with minimal props, a corrugated iron backdrop and a twisted tree for Scout and Jem to hang from. In a clever show of conveying a lot with a little, a street plan of Maycomb was chalked onto the stage by the cast in the play’s opening scenes, creating a child’s hopscotch-style map perfect for Scout and Co to scamper about on.
Oliver Fenwick’s lighting design with its sunshine yellows, glowing oranges and blood reds conveyed the heavy heat of the Deep South and its pressure cooker atmosphere as tension among Maycomb’s citizens grew. Phil King (also the composer) provided beautiful, gentle musical accompaniment on his guitar which added greatly to the play’s atmosphere.
So, I’m sure I’m not alone in finding most child actors annoying or nauseating (or both) but I must confess that the trio of kids playing Scout, Jem and Dill were terrific*. The scene when Scout asks Jem what their mother was like because she can’t remember her provoked many tears (not just me, honest) and was moving without being sentimental. So kudos to director Timothy Sheader for coaxing such lovely performances from his young cast.
Central to the piece was Robert Sean Leonard’s great performance as Atticus, his rich deep voice conveying just the sort of thoughtful gravitas you want from the character and showing him as a loving though occasionally stern father to his motherless children. There was no question that though Scout and Jem were learning harsh life lessons, their principled, humane father was equipping them as best he could to be good people and lead good lives.
Going back in time to 2010, Trevor Nunn’s Birdsong, an adaptation of Sebastian Faulks’ much-lauded First World War novel, was flawed but affecting. The experiences of soldiers on the frontline provided an emotional impact that was lacking in the scenes set before the war which focused on the doomed but insipid romance between Stephen, a gauche young British man working in Amiens, and his host’s beautiful, fragile wife, Isabelle.
This lack of impact was in no part due to the actors (Ben Barnes and Genevieve O’Reiily) who gave committed performances but lay more with the source material. I was underwhelmed by the love story in the original novel when I read it years ago, feeling that for all his talents, Faulks’s female characters tend to be one-dimensional and little more than ciphers to his male characters. The stage version didn’t do much to change this opinion.
However, once the setting moved to the frontline and focused on Stephen, by now an army officer on the Western Front, and the experiences of his men in the trenches, the tension and emotion increased along with my engagement with the play. Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation was on more confident, compelling ground in these scenes.
The designer, John Napier, created a believably bleak landscape above ground and claustrophobic trenches and tunnels below. Projections and sound provided an alarmingly convincing sensory experience of battle and it was easy to imagine ordnance flying overhead.
In a strange way, the production seemed to come to life once it focused on death. The hardships in the trenches, the contrasts between the camaraderie of the Tommies and the remote detachment of the upper class officers were well conveyed. Lee Ross as Jack, a working class sapper whose cheery demeanour kept his younger, less experienced comrades’ spirits up, was especially good, a scene in which he receives a letter from home telling of his young son’s death being completely tear-jerking.
Another mark in the play’s favour was seeing Iain Mitchell (who I seem to see on stage at least once a year and is always excellent – busy man!) and Nicholas Farrell who was heartbreaking as Crocker-Harris in a production of The Browning Version I saw at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2012 – and proof that plays about stiff upper lipped Englishmen can pack emotional punches!
*There were nine children taking turns to play Scout, Jem and Dill and I’m not sure which ones I saw, hence the lack of name check. Sorry, kids!