To Kill a Mockingbird director Bartlett Schell: ‘Theatre isn’t about right and wrong’

It’s one of the most famous scenes in screen history: Gregory Peck plays Atticus Finch, a small-town lawyer in the 1930s, in the 1962 film. to kill a robin, packs his papers at the end of his but futile trial defending innocent black men. They stood and applauded him as he walked silently under the balcony of the courthouse watched by the blacks of the town. “Miss Jean Louise, stand up,” said Reverend Sykes to Finch’s daughter. “Your father passed away.”

It’s hard to read — or read Harper Lee’s original novel — and keep dry eyes. But that scene was absent from Aaron Sorkin’s recent dramatization of the story, which is about to open in London’s West End with Rafe Spall as Atticus. American director Bartlett Scheer, who came out of rehearsals in south London to discuss the show, said its cuts were key to this version’s approach.

“We were very careful not to put it out there,” said Shell, whose Broadway play was nominated for a Tony Award. “I think if there’s one flaw in the film, it’s that Gregory Peck made it a white savior story: he made him too much. I don’t think the book is true. We now There’s a kind of journey through this book that is more embedded in our story.”

Rehearsal for the West End production of To Kill a Mockingbird © The Other Richard

He added that the prominence of Lee’s much-loved novel in 1960 made both stage and censorship so important. It’s a cornerstone of a 20th-century literary canon: the touching story of three young children — Scout, Jem, and Dill — who encounter truths about racism, injustice, and the law in 1930s Alabama. As Sher points out, for many, the work is synonymous with their own childhood and their awakening to a profound injustice in the world. “It’s critical to the moral development of children and how they understand justice and change.”

The story of one man trying to fight entrenched racism in his community has a David and Goliath charge, and Lee paints a 1930s attitude from a 1950s perspective. But in 2022, telling a story about racial injustice through the eyes of white characters alone will be very different—especially on stage where black characters are prominently featured.

Sorkin’s script gave defendant Tom Robinson and family housekeeper Caponia a bigger voice. Crucially, they questioned Atticus’ belief in the inherent goodness of human nature. Calpurnia becomes an important balance point for Atticus, challenging his insistence that children have empathy for everyone — even violent white supremacist Bob Ewell. When Atticus replied that the people of Maycomb needed time to change, her response was sharp: “How long does Maycomb want?”

Bartlett Sher says he produced Harper Lee’s 1934 book “to understand who we are now in terms of who we were” © Getty Images

The line rang out in front of the audience following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. The aim, Scheer said, is to combine the respect and love for Lee’s classic work with a framework for reassessing issues about race, class, compromise and tolerance to create a dialogue for viewers from then to now.

“It’s a work that seeks to understand who we are now, based on who we were in the past. It’s set in 1934; she wrote it in the late ’50s; we’re here now in 2022 — we’re having a conversation.”

In Sorkin’s play, this spirit of scrutiny is incorporated into the structure of the play. While the novel takes a leisurely look at the children’s long, hot summers and their obsession with mysterious hermit Bo Radley, the show plunges us quickly into the trial and switches back and forth from there. Here, the story is introduced by three children who pull past events back into an empty warehouse, which can be seen as a metaphor for remembering, as Schell puts it, “where America is now.”

The director says it’s partly sensible stagecraft: “It’s based on the trial experience because it’s a seminal event in a young child’s life.”

But it’s also an initiative that embraces the overlap between courtrooms and theaters—drama, competing narratives, a public who must judge the truth—and places the story’s examination of law and justice truly center stage. Viewers can pin Atticus’ false hope that justice may ignore racism, as their own experiences call into question the future of democracy itself. Sher added that working with the British actor brings another layer of history to the predicament in the production.

“[Atticus] Someone who takes a case and believes he can defend and help him,” Sher said. “It’s okay to be idealistic. It’s okay to trust the system to work. It’s okay to have confidence in something bigger than yourself.

“I think we have to believe. But that’s the big question, isn’t it? How important are our laws? Under these conditions, is a democracy built by a group of white people in the 18th century still viable? Does it matter? It evolved Will it deform? Will it fit us? Can we use it?”

Sher is someone who loves tough problems. His conversations race against his mind, and his lunchtime salads are often slightly worse than his energetic inquiries about a topic.His career has been filled with award-winning theatrical productions that have tackled huge ethical issues, including OsloJT Rogers’ riveting drama about the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

The Sher-produced My Fair Lady will open in London in May, bringing the ending in line with the original Pygmalion © Joan Marcus

The revival of the critically acclaimed pop musical South Pacific, the king and me and fair lady They have balanced their progressive thinking during this period with their present his lincoln center theater fair lady (ENO arriving in London in May) tilted the ending to align with Shaw’s original, Pygmalion.

“Some viewers were very upset about us changing the musical,” he said. “But the musical has changed the script. So we just changed it back. That’s good: it creates dialogue.”

Of course, a re-evaluation of a beloved classic can cause uproar: such shows often hold a special place for viewers. But for Sher, that’s why they’re constantly being evaluated. He believes that in addition to making new voices, it is also important to keep telling and interrogating familiar stories.

“The drama is not about right and wrong,” he said. “It’s usually about two rights. The theatre’s job is to present complex situations in which the audience has to see their own history, understand their own past, and decide who they want to be today. Our job Instead of arguing for them and telling them what to think, keep going back and keep tackling these questions by re-investigating history and seeing it in new ways. Every generation is exploring over time.”

“To Kill a Mockingbird”, Gielgud Theatre, London, 10 March,; “My Fair Lady”, London Coliseum, 7 May to 27 August,

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