As part of our coverage of Black History Month Wales, Hannah Lawson caught up with Daniel Betts as he prepared to take the stage at Cardiff’s New Theatre as Atticus Finch in Christopher Sergel’s award-winning adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The touring production forms a centre-piece to this year’s cultural and historical celebrations and tributes.
Hannah Lawson: What initially drew you to this role and production?
Daniel Betts: Atticus is such a wonderful, iconic character but it hadn’t even crossed my mind to mark this as a role I wanted to play in the future. When I first auditioned for the role I was in the middle of doing Dial M for Murder – so my head was in a completely different place to justice-seeking lawyer! – and so the part crept up on me.
I hadn’t read the book for a while so when I re-visited it what truly drew me to Timothy Sheader’s production was the realisation that even though we’re dealing with a text which has so much sentimental value and perfection, it’s concerned with how everyone is treated unfairly, and that’s a really urgent political message.
What sort of preparation and research did you do?
Simply, I went back to the novel. It’s so rich, beautiful and timeless that it became the beginning of my preparation. It was also very important for me to become immersed in the history of the era not just that of the Deep South and the Wall Street Crash in the 1930s, but what else was going on around the world in order to get a sense of the tone and insecurities of the age.
I also spoke to a friend of mine who is a QC, who read the book and then took me through the steps how Atticus would have prepared Tom Robinson’s case and the legal strategy for those sorts of cases which was fantastically interesting and illuminating.
I didn’t go back and watch the film because I didn’t want Gregory Peck’s perfect performance rattling inside my mind, and all the history of his version of Atticus hanging over me, whilst I was trying to find the way I would play Atticus.
In a 2009 poll To Kill a Mockingbird was voted the most inspirational book of all time, beating the Bible into second place. Is it daunting taking on a story that is so important to so many?
Of course! Everyone who has read the book has their particular Atticus, Scout or Boo in their minds and so there is a huge weight of expectation from the audience coming to see the show. But what is so great about this production is that it isn’t a radical interpretation and so we’re really embracing the expectation of the audience, so it becomes a very generous and warm production.
To Kill a Mockingbird is famously Harper Lee’s only novel – what are your thoughts on why she never wrote again?
It’s extraordinary that she never wrote again but like anyone, I can only imagine the amount of pressure I would feel if I had an unimaginable amount of success in such a short space of time.
How important do you think Black History Month is?
It’s hugely important, the amount of intolerance in the world is devastating and we need to keep engaging with these histories which had been traditionally excluded. Everyone’s history should be honoured (women’s history, LGBT history, non-able bodied history) and importantly, we should never forget that so many histories of other oppressed groups are still yet to be written and discovered.
Do you think t he UK and the USA face different challenges in addressing racial discrimination, or are we essentially looking at the same issues?
I think there are different local issues which affect every area, not just the UK and USA, but maybe the intolerance is all the same ignorance and misunderstanding but with varying historical contexts. It’s hard for me to talk about racial discrimination and the challenges within it as white middle class man; you would have to ask someone whose situation is more akin to Tom Robinson and those directly living with the reality of discrimination to comment.
Do you think we’ve reached a stage where white people are comfortable discussing black history, or do you think there’s still a reluctance or awkwardness about getting involved?
Yes, there is still a reluctance to engage with those issues. One example that I springs to mind for this is the fallout from the Brett Bailey exhibition recently at the Barbican, I didn’t see it but I still don’t know how I feel about it – I need to talk to more people who saw it to get a clearer picture of it all!
With so much negativity and oppression associated with white figures in black history, do you think Atticus Finch is particularly powerful because he gives us an opportunity to remember and celebrate those who made a positive contribution to black rights?
Yes and I think it’s important to stress that fundamentally he’s an example of a human being capable of feeling empathy and that’s why to me he is particularly timeless.
A lot of lawyers cite Atticus as their inspiration for entering the profession, yet it isn’t one that has a public perception as a moral one. Do you think they have an unfair reputation?
Yes, I do. When we sometimes talk about lawyers, I think we immediately have the image of a corporate lifestyle working in the depths of complicated law when there are lawyers working in Legal Aid, fighting for human rights and other really important areas of the law which will change lives for the better. Also, it’s very easy to go into a profession with a noble reason and then get caught up in the day-to-day drudge of it and lose track of those idealistic intentions – and that’s for any profession, not just lawyers!
Atticus takes on the case, and his local community, despite knowing that he is overwhelmingly likely to be defeated. Since the book’s publication in 1960 do you think we have lost that sense of fighting in vain for the right thing? Are we more willing to accept injustices?
I think it’s that people feel helpless, rather than they are more willing to accept injustices. I marched against the war in Iraq and it made no difference whatsoever to the stance the government took. When that happens with something which you believe is morally objectionable, you become numb to what is going on around you because you feel you have no effect whatsoever.
Also, morality changes over time. Culturally, we live in a very different world to when To Kill A Mockingbird was written – and I believe that morality is bound up in our culture which makes it all bit more vague to right for the right thing because what is ‘right’?
Since putting yourself in Atticus’ place have any of your views or attitudes changed; have you learnt anything that has surprised you?
I have learned that to change anything you can only change within yourself and with any luck that might permeate with the people who are closest to you. That is the only real way to get positive change in the world.
Are there any recent Welsh productions that have caught your attention?
The Passion by National Theatre Wales was incredible and I was so happy with the attention it attracted, it looked so fantastic. I also remember seeing The Culture Show on De Gabay which National Theatre Wales produced which taught me so much about the Somali histories in Wales which were completely unknown to me.
As part of BHM I am also looking at a production called Tangled Roots based around the experiences of mixed race families. On its tour it holds a life writing class for the local community at each venue before the play, and then incorporates some of the writing from the workshop into the performance. As an actor how would you approach this format and its challenges?
That sounds hugely frightening but fantastic to do – I would feel massively honoured to represent their lives on stage. I would approach it with relish!