REVIEW: Tequila Mockingbird | Cremorne Theatre, Brisbane
What would Harper Lee make of Nelle Lee’s radical retelling of To Kill a Mockingbird? The characters are one-dimensional here, but it still works.
shake & stir theatre company do exciting things with classic texts — so far they’ve given us Animal Farm and 1984, and now established writer and actor Nelle Lee has come up with Tequila Mockingbird, her own interpretation of the 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (no relation). She has transported this seminal tale of racial prejudice and the law to a small Australian town in the present time, keeping the same basic plot and theme, but adapting characters to suit the very different setting.
Apart from being an excellent play in its own right, Tequila Mockingbird reiterates the power and the universal truth of the original Harper Lee novel, and its message wasn’t lost on the mostly teenage audience at the Cremorne. Rather than squirming and making smart-alec comments as they often do at performances that are beyond their comprehension, the crowd who attended the same mid-week performance as I did seemed completely in accord with the sentiments of the play, gasping in horror, I’m glad to say, at the overt racism of many of the characters, and laughing only at appropriate moments.
But this is more than just a school show, and there were many adults in the audience who also sat transfixed at the power of the characters and the plot. A very effective set from the inimitable Josh McIntosh created multi-purpose spaces with a series of simple flats patterned like wall tiles, suggesting different venues with changes of lighting by Jason Glenwright.
The play is no pale shadow of the original novel, either, and each character slots naturally and easily into the new story. A young Indian doctor (Shannon Haegler in an impressive debut performance) comes to the dying town to keep the medical centre up and running, but only the town lawyer (Bryan Proberts, with a very strange staccato delivery) makes him welcome. Racial tolerance evinces itself in every way from downright yobbishness to genteel middle-class condescension, and when push comes to shove and he is wrongly accused of assault on the young gormless girl (Nelle Lee) who is continually abused by her vicious boyfriend, the whole town turns against him. The lawyer not only protects but defends him, in the process redeeming his own problem son (Nick Skabu).
It’s a gutsy recreation of an inward-looking small community, and each of the actors is totally convincing. But Barbara Lowing in her triple roles as pub keeper, drunken mother and pretentious keeper of the social values, is outstanding, obviously enjoying all the characters she brings vividly to life. As the savage mother-protector of her pond-life son (Ross Balbuziente), she brings out the danger hidden in her superficially comic town drunk; she gets the small-town pretensions of richer inhabitants to perfection; and she’s a loveable and totally recognizable owner of a failing country pub.
Yes, perhaps the characters are one-dimensional; perhaps the style is akin to comic-book narrative; and perhaps it’s over-simplified: but it works, and that’s all that matters. The message comes through loud and clear, and I wonder how real-life yobbos such as those presented in the play would react to it. How would it go inside a prison for young offenders, I wonder? That would be a real test of its effectiveness. Preaching to the converted in the form of respectable school kids is one thing, but changing attitudes in real life is a more difficult task. How about it, shake & stir? That would be real shaking and stirring.
The details: Tequila Mockingbird plays the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC until September 7. Tickets on the QPAC website.