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To Kill A Mockingbird - Timothy Sheader on Staging Harper Lee's Classic Novel

When Harper Lee's novel To Kill A Mockingbird was reported to have been
banned from GCSE reading lists in England and Wales last year alongside
other works by American writers at the behest of UK Education Secretary
Michael Gove, there was an understandable outcry. Here, after all, was
an iconic and much-loved Pulitzer Prize winner which, since its
publication in 1960, has become a modern classic.

As Regent's Park Theatre set off on a tour of Timothy Sheader's hit
west end staging of the novel which takes in three Scottish cities,
what the incident highlighted was just how much of a bond readers who
grew up with To Kill A Mockingbird maintain with it throughout their
adult life.

“I watched what Michael Gove was saying,” says Sheader, “and he said
that he wanted more of Charles Dickens, who I think is wonderful and
writes great universal stories and creates wonderful characters, but
they're not really about life in the same way that To Kill A
Mockingbird is or in the way that John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men is.
I think this was a personal bĂȘte noir of Michael Gove's, and I think he
regrets it.

“It's interesting, because Meera Syal's novel, Anita and Me, was chosen
by some schools to go on the syllabus in place of some of the American
works, and there was this delicious irony, because Syal said she only
became a writer because of reading Harper Lee.”

Set in a small town in deep south Alabama during the 1930s depression,
the book's story, as told by Scout Finch recalling events when she was
a young Tomboy, focuses on the trial of a black man accused of raping a
white woman, with Scout's widowed lawyer father tasked to defend the
accused. What follows, as Scout, her brother Jem and their friend Dill
watch the trial, is a study of how institutionalised racism and
prejudice can lead to injustice. It is also a rites of passage for
Scout, who wakes up to her own attitudes towards the largely unseen
figure of Boo Radley, the town's reclusive eccentric.

“It's a beautiful novel,” says Sheader, “but it's also a plea for
tolerance. I think most of us read it at a certain time in our lives,
as young adults, so we have that shared experience. Because of that,
there's an interesting psychology that goes on about what happens when
we revisit it as adults, and that's about being able to see both sides
of the coin. When you read the book as an eleven or twelve year old,
you share that same sense of exasperation about the injustices there
are in the world that Scout does, but when you're older, you're more
used to how the world works. It's something quite rare in theatre, in
that around ninety per cent of our audience will have read the book.
Part of the joy of our production is knowing that and celebrating it.”

Sheader's production opens up Lee's story by engaging with the audience
– be it made up of grown-ups or children – in a way more directly than
a naturalistic rendering of Christopher Sergel's adaptation might do.

“We read the book onstage,” Sheader says of the production's framing
device. “The actors are in modern dress, and there are twelve different
copies of the book onstage, which the actors read from in their own
accents., as if they're reading it at home. Then gradually through this
feat of shared imagination we usher these three children and Scout's
father Atticus onstage. The book is full of beautiful bits of prose
which don't always translate, and sometimes you just need to hear those
lines beyond the pure dialogue.

While Lee's book was an instant best seller when it was first
published, the story was brought into public consciousness even more by
the Robert Mulligan directed cinema adaptation, which starred Gregory
Peck as Atticus and Robert Duvall as Boo Radley. Both the film and
stage adaptations have gone some considerable way to keeping Lee's
novel evergreen.

“To Kill A Mockingbird gets done a lot onstage in much the same way as
Shakespeare does,” Sheader points out. “That's partly to do with the
different generations which it attracts. There are people who grew up
with the book who bring their children or their grand-children, so it's
not something that ever really stands still.”

Beyond the story's cross-generational appeal, an allure has grown up
around the book more to do with its author and the fact that the now
eighty-eight year old Lee has never published another book. Lee had
taken elements of her own Alabama childhood for To Kill A Mockingbird,
although she has always denied the book was autobiography.

Following the book's publication, Lee worked with her childhood friend
Truman Capote – who her character Dill is partly based on – researching
what end up as his 'factual novel', In Cold Blood, and rarely appeared
in public. While this stoked the sorts of unfounded rumours that
usually accompany any artist's withdrawal from public life, the truth
was probably more mundane.

“Maybe she's had a wonderful life,” Sheader speculates. “Where do you
go after writing something like To Kill A Mockingbird?  Most writers
really have four great works and maybe twenty mediocre ones, so she
just thought after writing one that's it.”

As Sheader's production has already proved, as far as To Kill A
Mockingbird is concerned, that is far from it.

“Anything we're doing is purely to honour both Harper Lee and the
novel,” he says,  “and as a story
I don't think it's lost any of it's emotional resonance. On one level
it tells a beautiful story which we can all enjoy, one which crosses
barriers of culture, age and race. It's a story that's a plea for
tolerance and justice, not just with race, but, with Boo Radley, how
people who are deemed to be a bit different are treated. The story also
asks you to try and imagine what's going on beyond what's immediately
apparent, and to look beneath the surface and into our own prejudices.
That's as important a life lesson to have now as it was when the book
was written.”

To Kill A Mockingbird, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, February 3-7; King's
Theatre, Edinburgh, February 9-14; His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen,
February 16-21.
www.atgtickets.com

The Herald, January 29th 2015

ends

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