Writer: John Steinbeck
Director: Guy Unsworth
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Steinbeck’s depression-era-defining work comes in for a lot of criticism – being banned in some places for its content. However, there’s a good reason it’s named among one of the great American stories – the characters, environments and attitudes depicted are perfectly illustrative of a time and place that shaped the modern US. While fictional, it’s based on Steinbeck’s own experiences as a farm worker during the depression – telling the harsh story of that time.
The play follows Lennie and George as they make their way through their first few days as labourers at a barley farm in California at harvest time. They’re hassled from the moment they get in the door, and while there are good men in the work-gang, there’s a suspicion of the close friendship they have. Close since childhood, the physically strong but intellectually disabled Lennie, and the sharp but angry George have worked and moved around together, forming a bond that’s incomprehensible to their lonely and solitary fellow hired hands.
Lennie’s disability means that while he doesn’t want to harm a single living thing, that’s exactly what happens. So, the pair must move on repeatedly. They maintain a classic version of the American Dream and comfort each other with recitals of the land they will buy, the crops they will grow and the rabbits they will keep. This exercise in wishful thinking is used through the work to highlight the sorry state of their past, present and futures – as we see them hope we know it’s futile.
Attitudes within the modern audience towards women, towards people of colour and with disabilities are different from those when the book was written. It’s presented fairly unaltered in this production – the only coloured person on the farm is shunned and dismissed, while the only woman doesn’t even have a name (known as Curley’s Wife officially, and a tramp to most people) and her attempts at breaking her own solitude is met with suspicion, violence and abuse.
The overall impression is of a portrait of loneliness in many different forms. The mental isolation of George with Lennie as the main interlocutor, the warped relationship with fellow humans from the travelling farm-hands with only the whores of the cat-houses for any intimacy, the coldness of the woman’s place in this male-dominated world. Steinbeck’s story focuses on Lennie’s accidental violence as it’s peak – but for this production, everything falls into place with Crook’s speech on the impact a solitary life has on him.
The massive Wimbledon stage feels uncomfortably big for this production, but after a while, David Woodhead’s set and costume design make perfect sense as a frame for this stark existence. From the outset, there’s difficulty in getting involved with Richard Keightley and Matthew Wynn as George and Lennie respectively. By an hour in, they’ve drawn the audience into their world and as part of this close friendship, as they share an enormous amount of pain. An outstanding performance from Andrew Boyer as the old man of the bunk-house, Candy, runs through the piece, foreshadowing the future of them all – unwanted and broken. There’s a lot of material to cover – and while Steinbeck’s book allows the space for it all to breathe properly, the two-hour play feels somewhat overcrowded.
The notion of grinding poverty, so dire that it forces people to give their entire selves to it, may not be familiar for the majority of London theatre-going audiences. It’s an experience that is, however, becoming increasingly common globally, and nationally. Loneliness, however, is something that we can all empathise with – and this is a super production to explore that.
Runs until 24 March 2018 | Image: Contributed