Books IN plays

I wrote a post a while back about how I love seeing books adapted for the stage much more than for the big screen. And in this vein, last night I went to see a production of To Kill A Mockingbird at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

First point – Open Air, London, May. It was a worry but luckily the rain held off and although I lost some of the feeling in my toes I wasn’t so cold that I was unable to enjoy what was a fantastic performance.

Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (picture from http://openairtheatre.com/)

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (picture from http://openairtheatre.com/)

I’m sure everyone knows the story of a sleepy town in the American south which is suddenly shaken up by events surrounding the trial of a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. In fact the theatre was full of school groups who were clearly studying the text. But in addition to the book being a staple of school curricula, any new version of the story has to compete with the 1962 film starring Gregory Peck which is almost universally loved.

When we arrived at the tiny theatre, which manages to seem to be both indoors and outdoors simultaneously, the stage was bare apart from a tree holding a tyre swing right in the middle. As the start time crept nearer the theatre filled with chattering punters, rustling packets and all the other familiar sounds of theatre-goers. Until that is a man towards the front stood up and whistled. We all stared at him for a while, because he seemed to be making a point to the group of teenagers at the back who’d been clapping in a “why are we waiting?” kind of way. Eventually I realised that dotted around the seating area there were several other people standing on chairs and they were all holding books.

Then one of them started to read.

Taking it in turns they read the first few pages of Mockingbird before making their way onto the stage, chalking out the set and uncovering the few props which were used sparingly throughout the play. Then the children made their entrance and the action got under way.

The readings continued throughout the night, an event would play out between the children, Atticus and the other characters (who were all played by the various readers) then one of the other cast members would appear and read an extract from the book to move the story on.

It was a really clever way to do it, the story moves at such a pace that it can be hard to signify the passing of time and how one random event gives way to the next but by reading the text that move becomes much easier to understand.

My copy was read by Mayella Ewell (Rona Morrison)

My copy was read by Mayella Ewell (Rona Morrison)

Apart from helping the action flow, reading the actual words written by Harper Lee was a nice touch because they are so well-known. This book is treasured throughout the world and so it is only fitting that Lee’s words are given their proper place in ay telling of the story. Not only that but every cast member had a different version of the book and they all looked well-read. My friends and I were all able to spot copies we owned among the books laid out on the stage which gave us a feeling of connecting with the cast.

All in all, the play was a roaring success, I didn’t hear a bad word said about it as we were all filing out once the (metaphorical) curtain came down.

The highlight for me though was Tom Robinson’s testimony. It was dark by the time the trial came round and although the stage was floodlit, the lights were turned right down while Tom was on the stand making it impossible to be distracted by pigeons or your neighbour. The relatively brief performance by Richie Campbell as the accused man was absolutely spell-binding, his voice which in reading th text had been his natural London accent, took on the husky tomes of the Deep South and had me hanging on every word. It honestly made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

If you’re in London, the show is running until the 15th June and I cannot recommend it highly enough, you can buy tickets here: http://openairtheatre.com/production/to-kill-a-mockingbird.

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