Harper Lee’s great story encourages people to be better

Chichester Festival Theatre starts the New Year with one of the greatest novels of the 20th century on stage in an acclaimed production from Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

Monday, 12th January 2015, 2:56 pm
Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch. Picture by Johan Persson
Daniel Betts as Atticus Finch. Picture by Johan Persson

To Kill A Mockingbird is at the venue from January 19 to 24.

Set in the Deep South, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel sees racial injustice envelop a small-town community. Through courage and compassion, lawyer Atticus Finch seeks the truth while his feisty daughter, Scout – a young girl on the cusp of adulthood – brings new hope to a neighbourhood in turmoil.

Playing Atticus is Daniel Betts who is relishing the huge audiences they have been getting on tour.

“The play itself is extraordinary. We have gone from town to town, and we have been pretty much rammed. It helps that it has been on the school syllabus for so long so you get people in the audience who are studying it right now going back to people in their 40s and 50s who studied it years ago. You have got this wide age span in the audience, which is great.

“But the danger is that it simply becomes an exercise in nostalgia and people think ‘Oh, I remember that book!’ or ‘It’s awful how badly black people were treated in the 1930s.’ That would be a failure on our part if people came out thinking that, but the good thing is that’s not what they are thinking. There was a review that said the play encouraged us to be better and to do better. That’s the right response. That’s what makes it an important piece to play.”

A huge part of the pleasure for Daniel, of course, comes in bringing to life a character as interesting as Atticus.

“I have just been on the road with a play called Dial M For Murder playing a horrendous sociopath. It was wonderful to play that part, and then you come to Atticus Finch and you think ‘What the heck!’ But it has been great. It is a real challenge.

“Atticus is a man who stands for moderation and tolerance and understanding, not only about race but about people with special needs.

“There is a wonderful book, which is a collection of people’s memories of the novel and what it meant to them. This writer had gone around and gathered people’s views, some famous people as well, and it is interesting to see what they all picked out.

“One of the things that does come out is that some people see Atticus as the ideal father, the kind of ‘I wish I could have had a father like that!’ But really for me, there are questions about how good a father he actually is. You might draw parallels with Aung San Suu Kyi. Can you imagine being her children?

“Atticus Finch is a man who puts his ideals before his children. He is a man who is a single father, and for him the absence of his wife is a huge hole in his soul. He was struggling to do the best he possibly could.

“But what I hope he does represent is the possibility of goodness, of honesty, of integrity.”

Daniel’s previous theatre credits include Skylight (National Theatre), The Winter’s Tale (Royal Shakespeare Company), Dial M for Murder (UK Tour), Sweet Bird of Youth (Old Vic), The Great Game (Tricycle, NYC and US Tour) and The King’s Speech (Wyndham’s Theatre). Daniel’s previous television roles include Criminal Justice, Law and Order and A Touch of Frost.