Meet Atticus Finch: centrist dad.
Aaron Sorkin’s smash Broadway stage version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ makes a fair few tweaks to Harper Lee’s 1960 literary masterpiece.
Most predictably, there’s the ‘West Wing’ mastermind’s trademark sparkling dialogue. Yes, he remains faithful to the idea that we’re in ’30s Alabama, but his polished wit is very much present and correct, most especially in the goofily pinging three-way narration provided by his child characters: plucky Scout (Gwyneth Keyworth), chippy Jem (Harry Redding) and dorky Dill (David Moorst). The narrative structure has been tinkered with: the climactic trial scene is now parcelled up into chunks throughout the play rather than included as a single sweeping sequence.
The plot, however, is essentially unchanged. By far Sorkin’s most significant intervention via Bartlett Sher’s production is to pointedly reimagine the play’s white lawyer hero Atticus Finch. Rafe Spall’s interpretation of the role steers well clear of Gregory Peck’s immortal screen version and, to a large extent, the book. Peck’s Finch was famously sonorous-voiced and saintly. In both book and film, Finch was explicitly seen through the adoring eyes of his daughter Scout.
Here, with his chipmunk Alabama twang, Spall simply *sounds* less like a wise statesman than Peck ever did. And his behaviour is different: he’s thinner-skinned and more erratic as he sets about defending Jude Owosu’s resigned Tom Robinson, a young Black man accused of rape. Atticus’s insistence on courtesy towards the sulphurously racist lynch mob who come for Tom – led by the defendant’s horrendous father, Bob Ewell (an infernal Patrick O’Kane) – feels weak, especially in the face of a malevolence underscored by the wince-inducingly frequent deployment of the n-word. And Atticus’s murkier actions – particularly with regards to Ewell’s final fate – are given more scrutiny.
Sorkin has smartly justified this by having the story recounted by both of Atticus’s kids: there’s the book’s narrator – the adoring Scout – plus the much more critical Jem, something of an audience proxy in questioning his father’s restraint. As to why Sorkin has done this: well, clearly he’s critiquing modem white American liberalism. However quixotic Atticus’s defence of Robinson might be in 1930s Alabama, he was written in 1960, a symbol of the inexorable progress of the Civil Rights movement. By contrast, Sorkin’s ‘Mockingbird’ debuted in Trump’s America, as the tide of tolerance was rebuffed. Atticus’s even-handedness no longer looks revolutionary, but a luxury afforded by his privilege. There is no danger of him being lynched, and he remains fundamentally removed from the dangers facing Tom. He frets at what’s happening, but remains cocooned from it, and the Black characters know that.
But making Atticus fallible and flawed and vain and quick-tempered doesn’t in any way ruin the character, just presents him as a more credible human. Spall is terrific as a man who must ultimately grapple with himself to do the right thing, and whose weaknesses make the extraordinarily brave things he does do – notably face down an entire lynch mob, on his own – all the more remarkable. There’s a moment when Moorst’s sweet, simple Dill confesses to Atticus (who has hitherto take a dismissive view of the boy) about his extraordinarily difficult home life, and Spall seems to be wrestling over how much he can bring himself to get involved. When he finally hugs the young man, the sense of relief is palpable. Spall’s relative youth feels important to his portrayal: just turned 39 he’s significantly younger than Peck was and decades the junior of Jeff Daniels, who originated the role on Broadway. He feels like a young single father genuinely trying to find his way through this stuff, not an angel from heaven irrevocably locked on the path of righteousness.
All that accepted, I didn’t feel quite so enthusiastic about Sorkin’s play and Sher’s almost three-hour production as Broadway critics did in 2018. For all its wit, it’s quite meandering: it might have had a bit more shape to it if the trial weren’t smeared piecemeal throughout the evening – it’s engaging, but also somewhat ponderous and stop-start. The events post-trial also end up feeling like a slightly cumbersome coda.
It also feels like a work that connected with the liberal American shock at the Trump era – for all the continued relevance of the issues, it now lacks the bleeding-edge relevance it must have possessed in the US four years ago.
Still, it’s a smart and satisfying update of a work that remains rightly seared into our consciousness, but was equally the product of a very different era. Breathing fresh life into one of the most famous characters of all time is no small achievement: this ambivalent Atticus is a huge achievement for both Sorkin and Spall.