I'm going to confess, I have never read nor seen 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. I know, what poorly educated wretch hasn't read 'To Kill a Mockingbird'? What can I say? I am a product of a country town public school education. Reading the full Tim Winton catalogue was a higher priority than the American classics. So when I entered the New Theatre to see 'To Kill a Mockingbird' I did so with no preconceptions.
As Scout, (a nine year old Teagan Croft) entered the stage it occurred to me how long it had been since I had seen a performance with young people playing the roles of children. Immediately I realised what a stark contrast this would be from every other production I had seen lately. In the first scene I am flooded with nostalgia. I feel like I am back at the theatre for the first time as an eager child. Sasha Sinclair's set design was quaint. Four doors mimicking the facades of Southern American homes, a white picket fence, a hint of garden and a solitary tree, nudge us into small town Alabama. A lady behind me sighed, “Oh, isn't that pretty.” She was right, it was.
There were no risks taken in this production. Everything was straight down the line from the blue wash across the cyclorama, to the some-times less than authentic Alabaman accents. The direction was safe and traditional. They weren't trying to re-invent the wheel. I really appreciated this. Instead of trying to stamp her style on an already widely known piece, Annette Rowlison's direction is traditional and gentle, letting the play speak for itself.
For those of you who haven't read 'To Kill and Mockingbird' or seen the 1962 adaptation, I'll give you the gist. A sleepy Alabaman town is divided when a cotton-field worker, Tom Robinson (Craig Meneaud), faces court on trumped-up rape charges. The central themes are loss of innocence and, of course, racism. The performances were delicate and endearing. I fell a little bit in love with Lynden Jones' portrayal of Atticus Finch. I won't lie to you, I cried a couple of times during his performance. He was so passionate and convincing in his defence of Tom Robinson; he truly walked in his character's shoes.
The performance was nice, the ensemble cast were enchanting. It had the feeling of family theatre. It was like a warm, toasty hug from the Sydney theatre scene. Despite its glowing charm, it was also a blunt reminder of our own civil rights struggles here in Australia. Some of my tears during the performance were perhaps less about what was happening on stage but my own shame at how Australia has hardly moved past this type of discrimination in the judicial system with our treatment of the Indigenous population. With indigenous people representing only 3% of Australia's total population, it seems absurd that more than 28% of Australia's prison population is indigenous.
'To Kill a Mockingbird' should be something we smugly nod at while we watch it, knowing that these kinds of prejudices are far behind us. Instead it remains all too relevant, reminding us of our country's one hundred year inertia when it comes to race relations.