The 2013 Regent’s Park Open Air theatre season officially opened last night with Timothy Sheader’s magical interpretation of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird.
With the audience wrapped up in blankets for the chilly opening, this might be the closest theatre ever comes to a bedtime story as the company clutches beaten up versions of Lee’s novel to read aloud the words of the book’s narrator, the wittily straight forward Scout, in between scenes staged on the minimalist set where the Alabama town of Maycomb is recreated in all its heady Southern charm with just a few props, chalked pictures on the floor and a healthy dose of imagination.
Of course, the Southern small town charm in Lee’s story is limited, highlighting, as it does, the danger of conformity and pack mentality with its heart-wrenching look at racial inequality. Seen through the eyes of tomboy Scout, it’s a devastating tale told by a witness young enough to recognise the ridiculousness of the adult’s archaic, prejudiced beliefs, but not old enough to fully grasp the complexities of the case at the centre of the story.
It’s a privileged viewpoint for the audience as we are drawn into Scout’s world where a whole day can be wasted daring her brother Jem and friend Dill to knock on the mysterious recluse Boo Radley’s front door or whiled away with tall stories, relishing their overactive imagination full of circuses, evil parents and town secrets.
An element of this childish innocence is undoubtedly lost in the second half when the town is replaced by a court room and we find ourselves the jury in literary hero Atticus Finch’s case defending a black man falsely accused of rape, and while Sheader’s production never loses it whimsical, storybook feel, the horrific consequences of prejudice and injustice are equally portrayed to emotional and sometimes brutal ends.
Between their stints as narrators, the company transforms into a vivid community from noisy, gossiping neighbours and grouchy old ladies to sinister, spitting mobs carrying pitchforks ready to attack. Robert Sean Leonard is impressive as Finch, bringing a quiet, unflappable quality to the integrity-led lawyer and father, while Izzy Lee commands the stage as the boisterous Scout, perfectly encapsulating the frustration of childish rage, humorously antagonised by her father Atticus’ coolness with her fighting spirit not yet tamed.
As musician Phil King serenades the audience in scene changes with his pleasant folk vocals, it may still be chilly, but the seasonal venue’s affectionately homespun opening certainly makes it feel like summer has finally arrived.