A step away from the fringe, we bring you a review straight out of Broadway.
Broadway Review: To Kill a Mockingbird
⭐⭐ (2 stars)
I grew up with ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, and as silly as it may sound, Atticus Finch made me want to be better, to be a lawyer and to fix all of the injustice in the world. So managing to get a last minute standing ticket for the new Aaron Sorkin adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird at the Schubert Theatre in New York was basically a dream come true. However, I found many problems with the script, the characters, the acting – overall my expectations had not been met. In fact, they were dashed in the first 10 minutes.
Firstly, Jeff Daniels is talented- there’s no denying that- and he did manage to make the role his own and separate himself from the gold standard that is Gregory Peck: but he wasn’t Atticus. In his defence, I had recently seen the film version for the first time, and so I did find myself constantly comparing the two. Whilst this could mean that I was slightly biased in my thinking, at points it did seem as if he were trying to be so different from Peck that he missed the point of the character entirely. For example, at the end of the courtroom speech Atticus says, ‘For God’s sakes let him go.’ Instead of saying it quietly, instead of begging this jury of white farmers sitting in judgment of a black man accused of raping a white girl, begging them to let go of their preconceived notions about race and see Tom’s innocence, Daniels yelled at them. A lot of his lines felt rushed and considering a majority of Atticus’ lines are him trying to explain to his children the reasons behind his behaviour, actions and decisions, it felt very out of character. Bob Ewell is another character that lost part of his initial purpose. Bob Ewell is not meant to be a bogeyman or represent the ever present threat of the KKK that many African Americans experienced the years following the American Civil War and the introduction of Jim Crow laws. He’s just meant to be an annoyance, a minor character. In this adaptation, he was a constant presence, always confronting Atticus, his sense of white supremacy played up to the point where he became laughable, a caricature.
My main problem with the characterisation of Dill was with how his arc ended, mainly because it didn’t make any sense. If after the events of the play happened, Scout and Jem never saw him again, then how could he be a narrator, especially during the final couple of scenes? This is inconsistent because in the book Dill runs away from his mother and her new husband to live with his aunt in Maycomb. His character was relatively two dimensional since there were aspects of it; his desire to be loved and a father and his vulnerability that were introduced but weren’t developed properly, leaving the performance somewhat lacking. Also, having children playing Jem, Scout and Dill was strange, it made To Kill a Mockingbird feel less like a coming of age story than it’s supposed to be as well as any interactions with the adults and their way of acting like children also looked strange. There are many shows that are led by children (Matilda and Billy Elliot to name a few) which can be demanding, and so there is no reason why Jem, Scout and Dill weren’t played by children considering adults do not know how to be a child and often don’t remember what it means to be one.
The play was very quippy and often moments happened too quickly. This meant that whatever tension that had been built up during the course of the scene quickly disappeared, which meant that certain moments didn’t have as much impact as they should have had such as Mayella Ewell’s testimony, the night before the trial when a mob comes to lynch Tom and the way the scene in the woods was played out. These are important moments that didn’t have as much impact or gravity as they should have because of too many one-
liners that were added for comedic effect. If there is one play where comedy has no place, it is To Kill a Mockingbird.
Scenes were added which were not in the original book that changed Atticus’ character; mostly the scenes with Calpurnia where Sorkin seemed to be hinting at Harper Lee’s sequel, Go Set a Watchman, a book that was heavily criticised for portraying Atticus as racist and the opposite of who he was in To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as being published against the wishes of Lee herself. In these added scenes Daniels’ Atticus did come across as more of a bully, doing things like allowing himself to be wound up by Bob Ewell and punching him, something that Peck’s and Lee’s Atticus never would have done, something Aaron Sorkin should have known.
The play was memory – Scout trying to figure out what happened to Bob Ewell, which perhaps too much time was devoted to, and which proved to be very anti-climactic, even though the nature of the play called for a narrator. It was a nice nod to Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie and worked well with the non-linear structure, meaning that the audience didn’t have to sit through a lengthy courtroom scene and potentially space out. With smooth scene changes and a rather ingenuous creation of the Finch’s porch and kitchen, it was very aesthetically pleasing and made you feel like you were in Alabama during the summer of the 1930s. The live music worked during the scene changes, but when it was played during the scenes was very distracting and unnecessary.
At the start of his courtroom speech, Atticus says, ‘Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.’ You don’t harm someone who has committed no harm and only wants to make the world a better place. Maybe next time Aaron Sorkin should take this advice before he decides to turn another classic and beloved novel into a play.