There was doubtless some sort of irony in finding myself for this show seated next to, apparently, Prue & Trude , bitching over their chardies about the temerity of the "usherette" asking them to move up a seat to make room for other paying customers at this sold-out performance. Though Christopher Stergel's adaptation of Harper Lee's legendary novel To Kill A Mockingbird is not the best page-to-stage translation around, the power of the story undeniably remains, and so does the petty snobbery of some middle-class townsfolk in this production directed by Liz Bradley.
Cate Clelland's design of lattices and trellises works very well to give the impression of a whole small town, but the decision to have almost all of the large cast on the tiny Courtyard stage for much of the time makes things messy and crowded, and while this serves to build a sense of claustrophobia, a place where everyone's all up in everyone else's business, it is also at times hard to follow. Similarly, having the courtroom spectators in Act 2 chatter audibly through procedings might have been realistic, but was also incredibly distracting and deeply irritating (I kept wanting to ask Trude & Prue to shut the hell up, but it wasn't them).
Michael Sparks has done an excellent job as accent coach. Steph Roberts, in an anchor performance as Miss Maudie, gets to recycle her already sound Southern accent from Streetcar a few years ago. Colin Boldra, while not the most charismatic Atticus Finch ever, is solid, and all three children (Maddison Smith-Catlin as Scout, Martin Hoggart as Jem, and Ben Burgess as Dil) are remarkably good, at least once Smith-Catlin finds her pitch. It's a relief, too, that Bradley has found some genuine talent for the black roles, and Joyce Waweru (a lovely Calpurnia), David Kinyua (Tom Robinson) and Ewem Etuknwa (the Reverend) are all welcome additions to the Canberra theatre scene. The whole cast does well, but I was especially impressed by Tony Falla, who gets his Jud Fry on as redneck supreme Bob Ewall, and by Megan Johns, an actor new to me, who is absolutely outstanding in the role of his daughter Mayella.
To put that in better context: I have never been one of the legions who number To Kill A Mockingbird among the greatest novels of all time, or even among their personal favourites. For me, the powerful messages against racial prejudice are too badly tainted by the fact they are rooted in another dangerous prejudice: that women lie about rape (and that a poor white trash woman is more likely to lie than her middle-class "betters").
Watching Johns' brilliant performance through this lens was almost unbearable. Conventional wisdom - though this is never actually established in either book or play - is that Tom Robinson is a victim of racial prejudice, innocent of raping and beating Mayella. But Johns is completely convincing as a rape victim on the witness stand, and watching her harangued and patronised by a courtroom full of men (Boldra's Finch, Peter Holland as the prosecutor and Brian Daly as the Judge) is deeply uncomfortable viewing.
Finch's contention is that shy, poor, downtrodden 19 year old Mayella has been plotting and saving all her money for a full year, in order to bribe her siblings to go out for ice-cream, solely to create an opportunity to seduce an unwilling Tom Robinson. (This is never supported by testimony, incidentally - Finch could call evidence to prove the ice-cream story, if it were true, but never does.) Does that hypothesis sound likely to anyone? Mayella's father catches them, and it's suggested that he beats her as a result. There is good evidence for this bit of the claim - but it's a red herring. Even if it was her father who beat her, not Robinson, that's no evidence that Robinson did not rape Mayella. Bob Ewall would not be the first father to blame his daughter for being raped, or to beat her for it, either.
I wish Harper Lee had written this story about a black man wrongly accused of killing a white man, or robbing a bank, so I could invest unequivocally in her moral position. But to ask me to believe a
diffident, brow-beaten, and almost certainly abused teenaged girl would scheme and scrimp for a year and spend every cent she could scrape together just to have the opportunity to coerce a reluctant older man into having sex with her has never sat easily with me. Neither does the way she is treated in court, by men later lauded for their great and nuanced moral sensibility. Watch Megan Johns' performance, just for a few minutes, without the conventional assumption of Robinson's innocence, and let me know if it doesn't make you uncomfortable too.