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The dead Mockingbird debacle

To Kill a Mockingbird. Oh dear. The production which originated at the Open Air Theatre, Regents Park in 2015 before touring nationwide including to the Barbican, is now dead. It was due to tour again (now produced by Jonathan Church Productions, The Curve, Leicester and Open Air Theatre) this spring. Now it has been cancelled.

The problem is the rights to Harper Lee’s famous 1960 novel. The OAT production used the late Christopher Sergel’s adaptation – with performance rights agreed with his estate, obviously. Then after Lee’s death in 2016 Scott Rudkin acquired the performance rights to her novel.  His Broadway production is due later this year and he has threatened to sue any British theatre which stages the older version on the grounds that they do not (or no longer, anyway) have the performing rights.

Cue for a great deal of understandable distress and anger. Nine children (three teams of three) had been cast and rehearsed. It was huge thing for them. Adult actors have been left jobless and a number of regional theatres now face a “dark” week in their schedules which they can ill afford.

I can see this from all points of view. Of course I can understand why the proud parents of those nine children are vociferously furious in their disappointment. On the other hand, Scott Rudkin has every right to enforce the deal he presumably did with the Lee estate in order to give his production the best possible chance. It’s regrettable – shameful, even –  that no one noticed the problem until the last minute, though.

I once taught in a school in which an over-enthusiastic musical theatre buff on the staff (she wasn’t even a drama teacher) decided to stage a production of Oliver!. Two days before the opening show – tickets printed, posters out etc – there was a call from the rights holders. Some anonymous person had tipped them off because of course Mrs P hadn’t applied for performance rights which weren’t available at the time anyway. So the show was cancelled and large numbers of students and their families desperately upset.

Well, that was a long time ago and back then I knew little about these things. But I knew enough to know that Mrs P had put herself and the school in breach of the law and that she should have known better. I was also clear that the situation was not, definitely, not the fault of the person who reported the breach. And I kept pointing that out to colleagues and parents who were bandying the word “spoilsport” about.

No one wants keen young people to be disappointed in this way – whether it’s a medium scale professional show or a very modest school production – but it’s no good blaming the law makers and people who justifiably defend their rights. If there’s a fault, it lies with the producers, at whatever level.

It’s a shame about To Kill a  Mockingbird though. It was an exam syllabus stalwart in the UK for decades (until a decision was made to distinguish more clearly between English Literature and Literature in English) and is still quite widely taught. I wrote three versions of my Philip Allan (now part of Hodder) study guide to the novel and two versions of Teacher Resources. And because of the popularity of the novel there was a lot of demand for them.

So it’s a novel which is firmly under my skin too and I admired the Christopher Sergel adaptation and the OAT production. But you really do have to check legalities at the beginning of the process – every single time, it seems.

Meanwhile I sincerely hope that those nine talented children will get another exciting opportunity very soon.

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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