First a disclaimer: I really, really love, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee. At risk of getting carried away, it probably has a strong claim to being my favourite book of all time. Therefore in my eyes, the Auckland Theatre Company’s production had an unfairly high bar set for their stage production of the novel, currently running at the Civic Theatre in Auckland’s CBD.
It’s pretty great then that overall, ATC did not disappoint, although to a small extent for me the play itself did. To Kill a Mockingbird is an American Classic, a rich nuanced text studied by school kids all over the world. The book tells a complex story which touches on black civil rights and mental health issues as told through the eyes of children. Arguably the genius of the book is the perceptive innocence with which 10 year old narrator Scout comments on her world. By removing that 1st person perspective, some of that element of the novel is inevitably lost in the conversion to stage. Instead, Miss Maudie Atkinson acts as narrator in her role as benevolent neighbour.
In order to fit the plot into a reasonable two hour slot, it also seemed that a lot of the story was rushed at the beginning in order to make way for a slower pace in the second half. In particular, the Boo Radley thread wasn’t given the time to develop as it could have, to my mind lessening its emotional impact somewhat in the final scene.
With my main critique aside, I can happily say that the Auckland Theatre Company have created a quality production with some burgeoning young talents. The cast was confidently led by the founding director of ATC himself, Simon Prast, as Atticus Finch. Turns out this is an appropriate casting choice, as Prast initially trained as a lawyer himself before following a career in theatre. Prast’s Finch was a less soft-spoken, more commanding version of how I envisaged the book character. This was probably a wise choice for a stage production, and he provided the pivotal focal point that is the character of Atticus Finch, the man who teaches us all to walk a mile in each other’s shoes.
Prast isn’t the only scene-stealer, the three young talents who played the key roles of Scout, Jem and Dill were all fantastic, in particular, Bille McKessar as young tomboy Scout. A strong southern drawl designed to make phrases like ‘frog-stickin’, ‘yes’m’ and ‘chiffarobe’ sound natural is no mean feat, and these kids impressively and consistently nailed it. ATC have chosen to have nine young’uns act these roles in rotating groups of three, no doubt to lessen the load of a major playbill production. If rest of the children are as professional and slick on stage as the first three, then I’m sure they will handle it in their stride.
Walking home at the end of the evening, the scene which lingered in my head was the moment where a young bewildered Scout diffuses an angry night-time mob with some polite southern pleasantries. The power of the willingness to see the man in the mob was elegantly portrayed, and reminds us all that we have things to learn from young voices, both in books and on stage.