Since the 2015 publication of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, it has become impossible to regard her first, feted book with the same innocence. Before then, To Kill a Mockingbird offered a beguiling child’s-eye view of a father’s stand against racial injustice in the deep south of the mid-1930s. Atticus Finch was the palatable white saviour who defended a black man in a hostile Alabama courtroom. But the second book’s indictment of Atticus as a racist, many years on from the doomed rape trial of Tom Robinson, irreversibly damaged his status as the story’s moral compass and heroic centre. So how to solve the problem of Atticus in any new telling of the original story?
Aaron Sorkin finds effective ways in his confident adaptation, drawing out the lawyer’s moral inconsistencies without undermining his goodness completely. Rafe Spall’s quietly dignified Atticus is on the side of the law and a firm believer in American justice, rather than on the side of Robinson (Jude Owusu) or an early champion for race equality.
The people of Maycomb are essential good, Atticus says, urging his children to respect their racist neighbours and to put themselves in the skins of the lynch mob that comes for Robinson, just as in the book. Except here the children decide for themselves what and who is right, and challenge him on it. The housekeeper Calpurnia (Pamela Nomvete, excellent) is also given a louder, angrier voice and she uses it movingly to stand up to Atticus too.
Scout, Jem and Dill are all played by adults – a high-risk venture which pays off remarkably well, and brings gentle but genuine humour. Scout, the sure, stubborn tomboy is vividly played by Gwyneth Keyworth, Jem (Harry Redding) is less defined but still winning, while Dill (David Moorst) brings laughs but is the most contrived character. Dill was based on Lee’s close friend, Truman Capote, and he appears like a caricatured version of a young Capote: prissy, literary and comically fascinated by the etymology of words. The three bewitch and entertain nonetheless and jointly narrate the story so it becomes shared rather than Scout’s.
Sorkin rejigs the narrative smoothly, weaving together the children’s world and the legal drama. The direction from Bartlett Sher is just as smooth, with some short scenes that yo-yo between the courtroom and the Finches’ porch but never feel brusque. Miriam Buether’s fast transforming set is fluid, mobile and unshowily gorgeous.
While Lee’s novel gives primacy to the children’s games of make-believe for much of the early part of the story, this begins as a courtroom drama from the off, with a judge, jury and witness-stand wheeled on within minutes. Spall does not have the graceful self-containment of Gregory Peck’s screen version but is more impassioned and dynamic in the courtroom scenes.
The drama of the courtroom, as a whole, is when this production comes most fully alive, the testimonies of both Bob and Mayella Ewell (Patrick O’Kane and Poppy Lee Friar respectively, both sensational) are filled with tension, anger, betrayal and disbelief. There are modern-day resonances of Trump’s left-behinds in their characterisations that feel utterly real and uncontrived; both father and daughter sneer at Atticus’s intellectual elitism and could be today’s forgotten populists of the rust-belt.
The drama feels less taut out of the courtroom, particularly at the end when it winds up the plot. As a drama that hinges on Scout’s memories of heroic fatherhood, Atticus still needs to emerge as the story’s saviour, and he does so, although his final biblical invocations for change sound hollow.
Its ends on a seemingly sugary note, infused by Atticus’s Christian hope, along with music and song. But this production, however quietly, offers a thorough indictment of the American justice system, from the bigoted white jury who convict an innocent black man against all the evidence in his favour – the echoes still resound today – to the vigilante justice condoned by the town sheriff. A dysfunctional judicial system, in an ugly southern town. One imagines the late Lee would approve.