Based on the novel by Harper Lee. Richmond Players. Director Matthew Barry. Richmond School of Arts; 5 – 20 August, 2022
Reviewed : 5 August, 2022*
This adaptation of a much read and studied novel revives Harper Lee’s characters and the town of Maycomb Alabama at a time when many of the issues it raised about the world in the early 1930s continue to plague society today. Racial prejudice, class, gender inequality, domestic violence, rape … and children losing their innocence at the hands of vicious perpetrators, continue to bloody our history.
It is opportune then, to mount an adaptation of the novel that, in the words of Lee herself “spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct…”
Director Matthew Barry sets the play outside Atticus Finch’s simple clapboard house. Light filters through translucent hanging fabric that suggests the epiphytic Spanish Moss that hangs from the branches of trees in the mid-Atlantic and south eastern states of America. It certainly sets the scene for a place where children might be frightened by a strange man who hides away in an old house, a father who punishes his daughter publicly and an accused man who is judged because of his colour rather than the truth.
Barry uses the floor and multiple entrances to the auditorium to extend the verisimilitude of town and courtroom scenes and involve his audience more closely with the Finch family, their neighbours, and the gossip and prejudices of their little town. Thus, Atticus (Matthew Barry) sits on a bench below the stage to read his newspaper – and hear the sheriff’s (John Courtney) whispered request that he represent Tom Robinson. Jean Louse “Scout” Finch (Leisel Hussey), her brother Jem (Luke Shiell) and their young friend Dill (Cooper Falzon) sit on steps in front of the stage to speculate about the reclusive “Boo” Radley. Locals gather at the side and front of the stage to watch the courtroom scene.
Looking back at that time in her youth is an older, wiser Jean Louise Finch (Alicia Brace), who introduces characters and connects events. At times she stands on the stage, at times she watches and comments from the floor of the auditorium. Brace is an older, wiser “Scout” who has lost the innocence and naïve curiosity of her young self and narrates the story with mature hindsight.
Taking on the role of director and actor is not an easy task, but Barry appears comfortable enough to ensure the action runs smoothly and the characters have the chance to develop clearly, especially the three young characters whose respect for and faith in Atticus come across so strongly. They are young, open, inquisitive and Hussey, Shiell and Falzon find all that youthful goodness and trust in very believable performances.
What a contrast is the character of Bob Ewell! Martin Crew is offensively malevolent as the cruel, violent man whose damaged daughter Mayella, played by Orana Keen, cowers before him as he berates and beats her publicly.
Norah Masige plays the Finch’s housekeeper, Calpurnia, who watches over his children and young Dill with a wary and caring eye. Masige brin
gs energy and the dignity of having been treated with respect to this role. She is especially strong later in the play as she comforts Rosa Robinson, played by Diana Renner, when she hears her poor Tom has been killed.
Benjamin Kanu takes on the role of Tom Robinson with a gravity that shows his fear, his despair about the Ewells’ lies and his respect for Atticus. Even in silence, Kanu has a strong stage presence.
Heloise Tolar, Emma Taite and Tamara Niccol are the women of the town. All three add depth to their small roles by watching and listening in character, as do Aurel Vasilescu and Ken Fletcher, especially as they watch and react to the trial scene. Sean Duff is distantly taciturn as Nathan Radley.
Peter Gollop doubles as Peter Framer and the lawyer, Horace Gilmer who leads the case against Tom Robinson in front of Judge Taylor played by Simon Peppercorn.
Atticus Finch draws his children and the townspeople together with wisdom and gentle advice. Barry finds this in measured reactions, kindly tones and the dignified reasoning of a man who observes, thinks deeply and is innately fair.
Richmond Players’ production reminds us that, unfortunately, the messages in Harper Lee’s novel are still relevant 90 years after the time in which it was set. Congratulations to Matthew Barry, his cast and his crew for having the courage to remind us of that.