Sheffield sees moving play based on popular novel

Daniel Betts, who plays Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lyceum Theatrre, Sheffield
Daniel Betts, who plays Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lyceum Theatrre, Sheffield
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A moving play about racism and prejudice set in the US Deep South and based on a mkuch-loved novel comes to Sheffield next week.

Daniel Betts plays Atticus Finch, the Alabama lawyer who has to defend a young black man, Tom Robinson, who is accused of raping a white woman.

In Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, the action is seen through the eyes of widower Atticus’s six-year-old daughter Scout, her big brother Jem and their friend Dill.

Daniel has already played the role in a smash-hit run at the Regent’s Park Theatre in London last summer and now joins a national tour of the production. He took over from Robert Sean Leonard, who created the role in London in 2013.

He said: “It’s daunting, I can’t deny that when I got the job it was a bit terrifying because you’re filling the boots of this person who did it the year before and it was a great success.

“Then you’ve got the Oscar-winning movie from the 1960s and all the success that had. I have to say that this is my story and I imagine the role like this.

“It’s like if someone says ‘have a go at Hamlet’. There are millions of people who’ve played it and some people say that John Gielgud did the definitive theatrical interpretation back in 1933, so you might as well not bother.

“You can only do what you can do and you can only bring to it what you’ve got in your life experience. You’ve got to stop listening to all those crazy negative voices in your head.”

Daniel said that in any case the show is an ensemble piece with a very strong cast.

He said the actors have been touched to see the reaction to the show from the audience.

“It has been amazing at the end of the performances to see so many people weeping, particularly men.

“It is a story about so many things, it touches on tolerance and understanding which we need more than ever now, looking at the Je Suis Charlie events, for instance, and what is happening in Syria.

“It’s also about a single father trying to do his best for his kids. For many men in the audience that’s a wonderful thing to see and for us to see them be moved by it is wonderful.”

Daniel said that the show is the only adaptation of the novel allowed by Harper Lee’s estate. The adult Scout narrates the action, along with other actors who stay on stage and sometimes join in the action as different characters.

He said: “It’s a wonderfully unique sense of storytelling, presenting a child’s view of the world. They tell you how it is, there’s no subterfuge with children.

“It’s like my daughter when we were going through a supermarket, who saw someone in a wheelchair and said, ‘that person’s going to die soon’. I suddenly had to become interested in looking at the organic carrots.

“A child’s view is unnerving and cuts through the stuff we build around us as adults.”

The children are played by youngsters, rather than teenage actors as is often the case.

“Having 10-year-old actors has its own problems as they have strict working hours. But having them on the stage brings that naivety and honesty and all that comes crashing through on stage and is just extraordinary.

“Scout asks Atticus ‘What is rape?’ and every night I hear it and think, ‘How do you answer that?’”

Daniel said there is a danger that the show could slip into nostalgia as so many people love the book, which is often the first adult novel that young people read.

He said that as racism is a central theme, “it is crucial that people leave the theatre thinking where have we come and what we achieved in the past 75 years? Terrifyingly little”.

Atticus also teaches Scout about tolerance towards different people, including the strangely reclusive Boo Radley and a woman who is trying to overcome a morphine addiction, telling her she needs to ‘walk around in another person’s skin’ before she judges them.

“He has this quiet voice. He has been cast as this hero but he is not hero material, really. He’s not a trailblazing criminal lawyer, he works as a probate lawyer.

“The judge says, ‘you’re going to handle this case’.”

It’s Atticus’s strength in standing up to the racism of the time in a situation where he cannot possibly win the case that makes him into a real hero, reckons Daniel.

To Kill a Mockingbird is at Sheffield Lyceum from next Tuesday to Saturday. Box office: at the Crucible, online at www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk or call 0114 249 6000.