Preview: To Kill A Mockingbird

Harper Lee’s sombre message is increasingly relevant in Brexit Britain, says Saskia Murphy

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Earlier this year Atticus Finch was voted the most inspirational character in literature in a survey conducted by charity the Reading Agency. The Maycomb County lawyer and father of two, created by the late Harper Lee in 1960, is universally admired for his quiet wisdom and relentless campaign for justice while defending a black man in an institutionally racist town in the Deep South.

The issues addressed in To Kill a Mockingbird are ones we’d prefer to attribute to a bygone era, but Bolton Octagon’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman, who is directing Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel for the stage, says Atticus’s presence in society is becoming increasingly relevant in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests and reports of racially motivated attacks closer to home after the Brexit referendum.

“To Kill a Mockingbird definitely needs to be told now. We need to be experiencing Atticus Finch encouraging his children, and therefore society, to climb inside other people’s skin and walk around in it,” says Newman. “In a country that’s losing its legal aid system it is phenomenally relevant. We’ve got to a place now in the British law system whereby the Atticus Finches are lessening, and that’s something we need to change.

“The idea of transporting an audience back in time, but also to a different country at a particular point in history that is entirely a reflection of the kind of turmoil that we find ourselves in politically at the moment, is very interesting. After everything that’s happened with Brexit and the fact that as a nation we are having to face a massive change, I think it is a key moment to start pulling out scenes from a story like To Kill a Mockingbird and discussing it as a community. Unfortunately it does feel incredibly relevant.”

With 40 million sales worldwide, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the most widely read American novels of the 20th century. When the Library of Congress did a survey in 1991 on books that have affected people’s lives, To Kill a Mockingbird was second only to the Bible, and Newman says the book’s popularity demands a live performance that does the story justice. She says: “Harper Lee created arguably one of the top 100 novels, definitely of English speaking countries. And therefore we have a responsibility to her memory to make sure that we put on stage the heart, integrity and the substance that she embedded in every word that she selected for the page.”

Working with a group of young local actors, Newman aims to bring Maycomb County to the round, and hopes the performance provokes reflection within the local community. She said: “It’s important that the story is in dialogue with the community, that it’s not done to them, it’s done with them. To produce the piece in the round makes it a democratic experience for the audience and therefore their exploration of the play will bring about their understanding, and I do believe that the role of theatre is to offer reflection for a community.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is at Bolton Octagon, 8 Sept-15 Oct

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