A classic of modern literature brought to life on stage with an excellent cast led by the peerless Matthew Modine.
Those with a passion for literature would almost certainly have read To Kill a Mockingbird at some point in their lives. It might even have been required reading or a set book for ‘O’ Level English. Harper Lee’s compulsive tale laid bare the spectre of racism in Alabama and one lawyer’s fight to save an innocent man from execution. The film version starring Gregory Peck is quite rightly looked upon as a classic. The clammy atmosphere of the courtroom jumps off both page and screen. This superior production maintains the same quality with Matthew Modine in sparkling form as Atticus Finch. Written for the stage by Aaron Sorkin (author of A Few Good Men) there’s no way this play could possibly fail.
The story alights in the Deep South during the 1930s. The Great Depression is starting to bite in the town of Maycomb. Tom Robinson (Jude Owosu) has been charged with rape, a crime that carries the death penalty in the state of Alabama. Widowed attorney Atticus Finch (Matthew Modine) is appointed to defend Robinson. He faces opposition from locals who resent the defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman. Finch’s children Scout and Jem lend enthusiastic support as attention falls on their reclusive neighbour Boo Radley. The battle lines are drawn as Finch gradually unpicks the account of alleged victim Mayella Ewell.
The Gielgud Theatre is a grand setting for a play of epic proportions. A seamless transition is assured as the court room quickly morphs into the Atticus front porch and back again. A white suited, silver haired Matthew Modine owns the stage and character with a calm authority. Aaron Sorkin’s script bubbles with energy and manages to preserve the understated humour of the book (Q. Would you say you drink to excess, A. I drink enough!). The mood of pre-war America is perfectly captured with a festering inequality that’s difficult to comprehend. It works as a drama but also as a social document of twisted morality and bigotry. Between 1927 and 1959 the crimes of rape, arson and robbery were punishable by death in Alabama. The odds were stacked against anyone who wasn’t white; we dream of the time when all capital punishment is consigned to the history books. But in the meantime this is gold star entertainment we should all savour.
Writer: Harper Lee, adapted for the stage by Aaron Sorkin
Director: Bartlett Sher
Review by: Brian Penn