Gielgud Theatre | ★★★★✩
In Aaron Sorkin’s hands Harper Lee’s classic novel makes a terrific play. This result would have been far from certain when work on this project began, even with Sorkin (one of Hollywood’s finest scriptwriters) and Bartlett Sher (one of Broadway’s finest directors) attached to this production.For in the BLM era many would balk at revisiting a story about racial injustice that has a white do-gooder as its hero. And then there is the matter of Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s latterly published first draft, which reveals Atticus Finch to be a racist.
Yet the link between the racism of the deep South nearly a hundred years ago and the politics of today’s America emerges so powerfully, the potency and importance of this production is undeniable. Which is why it gets the most genuine standing ovation I have seen in good while.
In his light linen suit Finch the lawyer — superbly played by Rafe Spall —is the epitome of Southern good manners. From the Himalayan heights of his moral high ground he assumes that good exists in everyone no matter how badly they treat their fellow man because of the colour of his or her skin. Even the hate-filled and fuelled Bob Ewell (Patrick O’Kane) who has falsely accused Tom Robinson (Jude Owusu) of raping his daughter — a crime the father is much more likely to have committed himself — does not nudge Finch from his principles.
The resulting court case is but one part of a dramatic summer narrated by tomboy Scout (Gwenyth Keyworth in dungarees), her brother Jem (Harry Redding in his stage debut) and their new friend Dill (David Moorst) a refugee from a loveless home modelled on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote.
The trial, which is set somewhat oddly in designer Miriam Beuther’s abandoned warehouse, dominates more quickly than it does in the book. Court room furniture gathers from the wings like magnets at the end of each instalment of the children’s adventures which centre on the mysterious hermit Boo Radley and Mrs Dubose, the sour old lady (Amanda Boxer) who lives down the road.
Also on trial here is Finch’s virtue. In Lee’s book his refusal to give up civility when confronted by the barbaric behaviour of others is a virtue. But to his African American house keeper Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete) — whom Scout describes as more like a sister to her father than a servant— Finch’s tolerance should be viewed first with impatience and eventually contempt.
This reassessment of the book aside, what gives this show its urgency is the way Sorkin drags Lee’s classic into this century. When Bob Ewell and his KKK cohorts spew the opinions that drive their lynch mob mentality, they sounds like those who stormed Congress. This is no coincidence. Sorkin reportedly used material found from the notorious right wing website Breitbart News to articulate the more reactionary opinions in his play. And certainly, when Ewell’s wretched daughter (an excellent Poppy Lee Friar), the alleged victim in the trial declares that whites are superior to black people because “we built Europe” it sounds exactly the kind of tosh today attributed to the likes of Q Anon.
Spall is terrific as the man wedded to his moral compass. But this play has a blunter message: principle is all very well, but sometimes you just have to fight.