Theatre director Timothy Sheader and how not to kill a classic

Director Timothy Sheader discusses his approach to retelling Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird on stage at the Theatre Royal

Director Timony Sheader
Director Timony Sheader

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has struck a chord with several generations through its universal themes and warmth. Director Timothy Sheader tells Robert Gibson how embracing that collective impact forms an essential part of bringing it to Newcastle’s Theatre Royal.

It's a conundrum for any theatre director.

On the one hand, you have a great story to work with, drawing on themes guaranteed to resonate, from racism to the innocence of childhood.

On the other, the narrative is so ingrained in the popular consciousness - first as a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that remains a classroom staple more than 50 years after its publication, then as a much-loved film - that to tell it again is a huge risk.

For Timothy Sheader, artistic director of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, the solution lies in acknowledging the impact Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has had on several generations since its publication in 1960 - and to corporate this into the production, deconstructing artifice to uncover deeper riches.

Hence, when the performance comes to Newcastle’s Theatre Royal later this month, audiences can expect a stripped down set - little more than a corrugated iron fence and the famous tree equipped with tyre swing - instantly calling on the imagination to fill in the blanks.

Johan Persson Zackary Momoh as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird
Zackary Momoh as Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird

In a further twist on Christopher Sergel’s original stage adaptation, a series of 11 readers will add their contributions, reinforcing the idea of a shared experience, as further nuances emerge from such simple techniques as chalk drawings undertaken as the action unfolds.

“I had a passion for the novel as a child and I’d been thinking about it,” Timothy explained.

“I thought I’d re-read it with a view to doing something on stage. I fell in love with it again and a lot of different things interested me.”

Indeed, he found even greater empathy which the tale’s central character, the young girl Scout, whose distinctive voice brings pathos and depth as she finds her place within a small town community of the Deep South, riddled with prejudice and racial injustice.

“I guess I’d read it through the eyes of the younger Scout the first time, whereas the second time, I was reading through the eyes of the older Scout,” Timothy said.

“It had a massive emotional impact on me and brought up memories of my own childhood, of reading it back then, so there was a connection on that level, as well as with Harper Lee’s pleas for tolerance and equality.

“I thought: if this is my experience, then maybe others are experiencing something similar.

“So it became all about the novel and our relationship to it, of our coming together to experience it.

“We all will have different experiences of the book, each with as much validity as the other, despite us all coming from different cultural backgrounds.”

Johan Persson To Kill a Mockingbird director Timothy Sheador at work
To Kill a Mockingbird director Timothy Sheador at work

In Timothy’s case, that cultural background was moulded by a childhood in Scarborough, where he first became interested in drama as a performer.

Alas, he wasn’t an instant star, being handed a rather minor role in a school production, aged 17. It would seem, though, that this was meant to be, since, hanging around with little to fret over, he was able to observe his English teacher engaged in a strange, yet fascinating, role apparently known as direction.

He started his current post at Regent’s Park in 2007, following a successful career as a freelance and, after putting his own stamp on the theatre, has gone on to win countless awards.

Still, you’ll not hear him boast about it. Theatre, for Timothy, isn’t about any kind of hierarchy, but rather about bring people together in an enriching environment through which a form of collective catharsis can be found.

“This is even more important when we live in a world in which we connect directly less and less,” he said.

“Modern technology and social media are fantastic, but what we retain singularly in the theatre is being alive and present in the room together in this way.

“You leave your concerns, anxieties and troubles at the door as you listen, watch and share.

“We’re either released from ourselves for two hours or we find ourselves looking at something from a new perspective.”

In this context, he says, To Kill a Mockingbird still resonates because of its sheer simplicity and innocence - a mood he hopes to capture through everything from Phil King’s sensitive bluegrass soundtrack to the pure vitality of the child actors, most significantly brother and sister Jemima and Harry Bennett in the roles of Scout and Jem.

Johan Persson Jemima Bennett and Daniel Betts as Scout and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
Jemima Bennett and Daniel Betts as Scout and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Another youngster, Leo Heller, is taking on the character of Dill Harris, while the adult cast includes the renowned Daniel Betts as lawyer Atticus Finch, Christopher Akrill as Boo Radley and Zackary Monoh as Tom Robinson.

The North East’s very own Victoria Bewick, from Blaydon, meanwhile, is excited to return to the Newcastle theatre in the role of Mayella Ewell.

“They’re all great and I’m really proud of them,” Timothy said. “They’ve been doing this since rehearsals began July and have kept it fresh.

“Their love for the novel is just as big as mine.”

Certainly, as the cast continues with their UK tour, they are attracting some outstanding reviews - the kind in which it’s obvious the critic hasn’t simply been impressed on a technical level, but been moved on an emotional one.

“The reaction has been absolutely fantastic,” Timothy said, adding that audiences have notably mixed, from school groups to the elderly.

“We’re really proud that the experience we had hoped people would have and share seems to have been commonplace.”

Tickets have likewise been selling well, with great demand in Newcastle in particular - a fact that pleases Timothy, given his fondness for both the city itself and the Theatre Royal, which he first visited as an assistant director with the Royal Shakespeare Company and to which he has since brought a number of productions, including The Vagina Monologues.

Johan Persson Phil King, who composed the music for To Kill a Mockingbird
Phil King, who composed the music for To Kill a Mockingbird

It saddens him, he says, to see council funding for such important institutions cut, but, as might be expected, even in this controversial area, his views are as balanced as they are strongly held.

“I think one has to be a realist,” he said, “but one also has to be an idealist. Every Government department is making cuts to some degree and, just as education and health services funding is being hit, so it is with the arts.

“But I 150% believe in public subsidy and think the majority of great art of this country comes through it.

“I also believe in art as a major life force - not something peripheral or frivolous, not a luxury, but an extension of our souls.”

That’s the grown-up Scout talking.

To Kill a Mockingbird will appear at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal from April 20 to 25. Tickets are available from £14 at www.theatreroyal.co.uk . Alternatively, contact the box office on 08448 112 121.

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