DANIEL TAKES ON THE GREGORY PECK CHALLENGE
WHAT a challenge?
How do you play Atticus Finch, the central character in To Kill A Mockingbird?
How can you convey the sheer strength of the man, who was never an overt Superman?
How can you convince as Gregory Peck did in the 1962 movie, playing the lawyer who battles to save an innocent man accused of rape, while revealing to an audience his core character of innate decency?
“It’s hard,” says actor Daniel Betts, smiling, who plays Atticus Finch in the theatre play of Harper Lee’s classic novel, the 1930′s tale of the struggling single father, an ordinary, who is called upon to perform the extra-ordinary.
“My last play was Dial M For Murder playing a horrendous sociopath, which was rather more straightforward, and then you come to Atticus Finch and you think ‘What can I do with this guy?’. But it has been great. It is a real challenge.”
He adds; “Atticus is, on the surface a very ordinary man. But when you read the book you realise this is a man who lost his wife just four years ago. He’s a single father, trying to do the right thing.
“The world lies heavily on his shoulders and so what you try to do is get across a sense of weariness.”
And then of course, you have to reveal a man with a tremendous energy, a man who steps up to the plate when he realises life is about the battle for justice.
“Yes, and that’s why it’s one of the fantastic jobs in acting,” he says. “I consider myself so lucky, given that ninety per cent of people do jobs they don’t really want to be doing.”
He adds; “Sometimes I have to pinch myself because I’m getting paid for this.”
Daniel believes To Kill A Mockingbird to be a very special piece of writing.
“It really touches people’s hearts,” he says. “It goes to the heart of how we feel. And it’s an honour to be on stage with a play, the result of which is the audience leaves the theatre with tears streaming down their face.
“Yes, it’s a tragic tale in that it doesn’t all end well. The accused goes to prison and kills himself. And Boo Radley doesn’t become a functioning human being.
“Atticus is still a dysfunctional father. His wife is still dead. This isn’t a Hollywood ending story. But we all know that life isn’t perfect and we know this.
“But it really touches on issues of tolerance, of people with learning difficulties. And this story makes us think.”
Daniel adds, on the theme; “The real big issue we have in our lives at the moment is religious intolerance.
“Now, I don’t think people are buying all these tickets to see a show because they want to be slapped in the face with reality, but what gets them is the story is so strong and affecting.
“People read the book as a child, they’ve grown up with the film and the want to relive the experience in a theatre. And it’s proven to be the case because tickets are flying out of the box office.”
The other strength of Harper Lee’s play is that it’s written from the child’s point of view, Atticus’s daughter, Scout.
“Yes, and what the story taps into is the courage of the human spirit. As Atticus says ‘It’s your ability to keep going even when you know you’re licked.’
“And that’s so real. It’s about doing what you know you should do. And Atticus isn’t the hero; he’s the anti-hero, a man who’s found himself cast in the role of the civil rights lawyer.”
Daniel, now 44, had an unusual entrance into the world of performance. He was born in West Sussex but grew up in the northeast, in a small village, yet attended school in Edinburgh.
“My parents wanted me to go to a Rudolf Steiner School (where kids are encouraged to consider arts in an “unhurried and creative” approach to learning) and had a teacher called Peter Snow, who was a wonderful actor and he saw something in me.
“He cast me in school plays, and showed great confidence in me.
“I found myself doing more and more – and loved it. Then I found myself auditioning for drama school, and it all progressed.”
It was all meant to be?
“It seems so,” he says, smiling. “I never had a burning ambition to be an actor. But I do love the job.”
He reflects; “It can be uncertain at times, but it’s not having to operate on someone with gunshot wounds at two in the morning. You have to get it in perspective.”
Daniel went on to co-found the theatre company Concentric Circles and has proved to be one of the country’s most in-demand stage actors. He’s also worked on a huge range of television and film work, from Criminal Justice to Silent Witness to A Touch of Frost.
The father of four children has also studied method acting. Did he bring any of his personal experience with his own kids to Atticus?
After all, Atticus Finch is a man who puts his ideals before his children.
“Yes, I did,” he says, smiling. “I looked at the script and I remembered the times when I should have been out playing football with my son – but couldn’t be bothered.
“You can’t play a part like this and not look closely at your own life. For me it’s made me think about how other human beings things.
“And that’s why it connects with audiences. It makes as all think about taking an overview. And hopefully doing the right thing.”
* To Kill A Mockingbird, The Theatre Royal, February 3-7.