IT MAY no longer be on the English GCSE syllabus but Harper Lee’s story of racism enveloping a small town is still a major draw at the theatre.
The latest revival of To Kill A Mocking Bird is heading for the Woking stage next month and its Director, Timothy Sheader, says it is a powerful story that still resonates 54 years after it was published.
And he has no time for former Education Secretary Michael Gove’s decision to remove it from reading lists for teenagers.
British author Meera Syall is among those added to GCSE lists, and Timothy says he’s glad, but adds: “The irony is that this woman finally reached the syllabus but it’s tinged with sadness because three writers that inspired her to get there, like Arthur Miller, John Steinbeck and Harper Lee, have had to make way.
“There’s a reason we studied them for decades and decades – they’re universal. They’re not American – the background is but the things they’re feeling and saying are universal. They show young people the right way to go.”
He says the American trio rank in importance with William Shakespeare – above other traditional exam authors like Charles Dickens.
“I love Dickens, absolutely,” he insists. “The characters are amazing but it is not a world view, it’s Victorian London so no-one in America is interested.
“Dickens books are fabulous, but versus Harper Lee or Steinbeck, they’re no contest. But there should be room for all…”
Timothy says the storytelling in To Kill A Mocking Bird is its secret. Set in America’s Deep South, Lee’s classic sees racial injustice envelop a small-town community. Through courage and compassion, lawyer Atticus Finch seeks the truth, and his feisty daughter, Scout – a young girl on the cusp of adulthood – brings a new hope to a neighbourhood in turmoil.“
“It’s universal, that’s why the story has stood the test of time,” he adds. “It’s inspiring and it’s quite a levelling book to read because it’s through the eyes of children. You can read this book pretty easily and it will have an emotional impact on you.”
Timothy says, sadly, many of the issues confronted in To Kill A Mocking Bird are still with us.“I think we may have moved on in terms of colour of skin but I don’t think we’ve moved on in terms of outsiders in our country,” he says.
“You only have to see Nigel Farage’s face everywhere to know it’s still around.”
He also admits it was daunting to take on such a well-loved text. “I felt a massive responsibility – but I knew what I wanted to do,” he explains.
“I felt that my passion and feelings for the novel would be shared by most of the audience. They would know the novel and would have had the same experience as me as a child.
“I wanted to acknowledge that and wanted the theatre to be a place where we revisit together the story of the Mocking Bird.”
The production by the Regent’s Park Theatre tells the story with all the actors in contemporary clothes and reading in their own accents.
“The book is the centre of things,” says Timothy. “It’s playful storytelling, we use our imaginations. It’s an exercise in imagination like when you read a book. It’s not literal, you have to play with the story on stage.”