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TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (article first published : 2007-03-14)

Carol Trench makes her startling directorial debut with an impressively slick high-school production of To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee’s story of racial prejudice in the American Deep South which is much favoured as a high school set-novel.

Trench is best known as a fabulous Durban singer and much-loved actress who most recently wowed audiences as Eliza Doolittle in The Playhouse’s delicious My Fair Lady. Not everybody realises that her day-job is a drama teacher at Durban Girls High School – and lucky they are to have her!

Her ambitious directorial debut is a shimmering success – a tightly-reigned, focused, crisp and easy-to-follow version of Harper Lee’s 1960 semi-auto-biographical novel which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1961. To Kill a Mockingbird has been a high school set-book for decades with its easy-to-dissect themes of racial intolerance, justice, selflessness, pride and courage.

Trench uses high school learners from both Durban Girls’ High School and Durban High School from Standard Seven to Matric. Pupils auditioned for the parts and rehearsed outside of school times as an extra-curricular activity over a period of six weeks. Hats off to the respective schools for allowing their learners to be part of such a wonderful experience.

The production is particularly well-cast and astonishingly well-performed. The young actors held their American accents throughout and their diction, projection and pronunciation was, without exception, really good – one could hear every word. From leading roles to cameos to crowd scenes, every performer took their challenge seriously and were completely convincing all the way through.

It is difficult to highlight any performer as it was such an ensemble project with the cast working well together. Trench’s well-considered direction ensured that all the major roles were well-integrated and the limelight was equally shared.

Having said that - the three youngsters were delightful. The headstrong Scout (Jessica Matter); brother Jem (Quinton de Beer) and friend Dill (Ryan Napier) perfectly found the balance between boisterous and precocious and were totally believable as three pre-adolescent children grappling with some pretty heavy issues and circumstances.

The scoundrel of the piece, the malicious Bob Ewell (Adam van Heerden), was a convincing villain; his abused daughter, Miss Mayella (Lyschelle Linderboom), captured the victim’s vulnerability as well as her cheeky cockiness; the kind-hearted sheriff, Heck Tate, was played with sensitivity by a suave Rory Appelton, and the wrongly-accused abuser, Tom Robinson (Thubelihle Wela) carried his role with dignity and empathy.

Two cameo roles which the young performers made their own were Vuli Zikhali as the Rev Sykes and Candice Bagley as Miss Maudie.

Special mention should be made of the delightful Calpurnica – the long-suffering servant and the children’s nanny. Nandi Hlatshwayo was fabulous – reminiscent of Hattie McDaniel as Scarlett O’Hara’s maid, Mammy, in that other great story of racism and pride in the Deep South, Gone with the Wind.

Trench cleverly married the young Scout with that of her older self as narrator played with circumspect gentleness by Samantha Petzer.

Complementing the youthful performances were two industry professionals: the covetable role of Atticus Finch – the lawyer who personified tolerance, justice and compassion – was played with great gravity, sensitivity and depth by Oded Rouche. He was clearly comfortable in this weighty role, and enjoyed the challenge of such a stunning character. Facing him in court was DHS’s Colin Chapman as the sobering and patient Judge Taylor.

Carol was ably supported by her theatre colleagues - costumes were by fellow teacher and Durban theatre personality, Karen Campbell-Gillies; the versatile set was by Greg King; Bryan Hiles helped with the construction of the ramps and sound-tracks were by Evan Roberts. The sound and lighting team made magic with limited effects equipment – the hectic storm was realistically scary.

The DGHS / DHS co-production of To Kill a Mockingbird is a must for all scholars of the piece and is equally enjoyable for those of us for whom school work and set books are from a lifetime ago. Within minutes you forget you are watching high school learners – instead you get absorbed into the remarkable story which resonates with us in South Africa in 2007, as much as the original did in Alabama in 1953.

To Kill A Mockingbird has final performances on March 14 and 15 March at 19h00 at Durban Girls High School. Tickets through the school or at the door. Wear sunfrocks and shorts – the hall gets hot! - Illa Thompson




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