To be brutally frank, a trip to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre used to be a chore, something only embarked upon when you had a chum with a nice role in a dodgy Shakespeare*; you’d endure the chill right through to act five with the promise of mulled wine when it was finished. I remember my father getting so annoyed with a seemingly endless version of ‘A Lover and his Lass’ in As You Like It that he mischievously shouted ‘ENCORE, ENCORE’ when it was finally over. The audience booed him. So to find oneself watching a very modern and very moving version of the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird is an absolute revelation; and a tribute to Tim Sheader’s tenure of the difficult venue (I say ‘difficult’ from the persecutive of a fellow-programmer of outdoor theatre). Mockingbird stands or falls by our empathy with the character of Scout, and the adaptation cleverly makes the entire ensemble play the role. They speak her narration initially from the auditorium, reading from various editions of the book (I recognise my O-level orange-covered version) and using their own accents, so the audience are complicit from the start, we are reading it together. The production channels Our Town and Lars von Trier’s Dogville, quietly clever, unfussy and clear. The child actors are just wonderful, giving sensitive and concentrated performances, and the versatile company demonstrate a powerful commitment to the text. Then in the second half, we are recast as the jury, now complicit in the terrible trial of a patently innocent man. The night grows darker and we are in the midst of an ugly civil rights showdown, rape and race, murder and mob-rule intrude into Scout’s world; the text famously tells us that ‘only the children weep’ at the verdict, but looking around my fellow audience members, this was clearly not true; a more awful loss of childhood innocence is hard to imagine. As Atticus, Robert Sean Leonard conveys a fine mind tempered by a realistic understanding of his limitations; he is an understated hero, hesitant and human, but a hero to Scout and us none the less. It’s such a painful and sad piece, and one that will never stop speaking to us. I was taught it at school and may young people always be exposed to such material, whoever may or may not be in government. In the past, when I gave a standing ovation at this venue it was in relief that it was over and a chance to warm up a bit, not so this time.
Venue cycling bonus points: secure cycle parking inside the venue. Hurrah.
(* with all due respect to those chums!)