It is now almost two years since Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel first appeared at the Regent’s Park Theatre and it has been touring ever since. Fittingly, it returns to London in the month of publication of Go Set a Watchman, probably the longest awaited follow-up in literary history. Retaining the feel of its original venue, a large tree hogs the central position on the Barbican stage, with a plain background changing colours with the seasons. Timothy Sheader keeps his production as simple as the story he is telling – that of the widower Atticus Finch, a small town lawyer in the American Deep South, his two young children Scout and Jem and their friend Dill. The year is 1935 and racial segregation and prejudice dominate the life of the town and the justice system. Lee told her story from the perspective of the older Scout, seeing events through a child’s eyes and this production uses Scout’s narration, read directly from several editions of the novel, with members of the company taking turns. The device is amazingly effective, creating a strong sense of community and incorporating into the production the beautiful literacy of Lee’s original words. It is clear from the outset, that this is a production that is well bedded-in and I suspect that it has increased in confidence and power as it has matured. The roles of three children are played on a rotating basis, but the three that I saw were excellent. The central figure of Atticus is played superbly by Robert Sean Leonard (can it really be over 25 years since he was the troubled schoolboy in Dead Poets’ Society?) with calm authority. His wisdom, his passion for justice and his courage in taking on the defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman elevate him from dull father to hero in the eyes of his children. The greatest danger for any dramatisation of Lee’s novel has to be avoiding making it too schmaltzy and, although I have to confess that I could only see most of this version through eyes clouded by tears, it never feels as if we are being manipulated, rather that we are reacting naturally to the emotion in the story and the way that it is being told. The key messages in Lee’s work emerge here with perfect clarity and they are timeless – that nothing is ever as it may at first seem, that villains may really be heroes and that every new generation has the chance to do things better than the one that went before it.
Performance date: 2 July 2015