FringeReview UK 2016
Roxana Silbert directs the classic Steinbeck/Kaufmann version of the 1937 novella. Liz Ashcroft designs.
Birmingham Repertory Theatre through the Consortium Theatre Company (TCT) have brought this superb production of Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella, dramatized by the author and George S Kaufmann.
The opening – an ensemble renders Woody Guthrie’s socialist anthem ‘This Land is Your Land’ – establishes both ethos and myth, as if we’re being told in a ballad. Nick Powell’s music otherwise unobtrusive spindrifts from this. Migrant workers George and Lennie enter through a hole in the sky, on a set full of high cloud and scrubland. It’s soon clear that the huge Lennie is ‘simple’ and the complex reasons for smart George lumbering himself with Lenny involve loyalty – they grew up together and Lennie’s relatives are dead – and a co-dependant familiarity, anchored in a shared dream of owning a patch of land where rabbits eat alfalfa. Steinbeck created a tangle of motives with a simple outcome, this one famously devastating.
Kaufmann’s compression of motifs ensures we hear a lot of Lennie’s accidentally crushing mice (hence the appositeness of the Burns quote, and its darker resonance on plans) puppies, and more besides. It’s clear too that George hedges every work opportunity with warning Lennie not to say anything. In this portrayal William Rodell’s George balances compassion with irascibility and quick thinking, coupled with an unexpectedly smart muscularity: he can take care of himself, he’s not the obvious weedy antipode to gentle giant Lennie. George despairs – Lennie’s attention-span makes any goldfish resemble Mr Memory. Lennie also doesn’t listen: in a climactic scene with the owner’s son’s wife they both talk heedlessly along wholly different narratives, poignantly pitched.
This is beautifully brought out in Kristian Phillips’ supremely oblivious sweetness as Lennie, and the softer impact of Saoirise-Monica Jackson as Curly’s Wife. In this production she’s no provocative siren but an unhappy young woman who in an additional detail has packed to leave, making this scene all the more poignant. Steinbeck himself was at pains to exonerate this character from her catalytic effect much harped on by Candy and others.
For this is a play of different alienations. Some migrants are friendly, like the shrewd yet kind Slim (Jonah Russell’s wisely honed compassion) or realistic, but no-one stays long. Only old Candy with his crushed hand and ancient dog (which admittedly looked just out of Crufts). Dudley Sutton is on vintage form here, shambling age with precision, querulousness and a darting eagerness clutching at one last happiness. The other old timer in ticking solitude, Crooks, is a black worker with a crook back.
They’re both kept on out of guilt by the kindly owner, whose unkind son Curly (Ben Stott rasps and snaps, ramping tension wherever he goes) and unnamed Wife spark the action. David Fishley’s Crooks is given one peroration and leaps into life whereas much of the time he’s confined to pitching horseshoes, never entirely out of sight.
It was Scott Fitzgerald of whom it was said ‘his style is hope, his message despair’. There’s a touch of this in the way George and Lennie’s plan leaks to Candy who reveals that crushed hand garnered significant compensation, enough for them all to plan. It’s the quietly embittered Crooks who unbends, confined to a segregated room where he’s invaded first by Lennie, then Candy and George looking for Lennie. The climactic meeting of all these characters shows how hope flickers. The way Steinbeck uses the fate of animals to point up the human condition is seized on by director Roxana Silbert who has the cast imitate animals noises at the start.
Designer Liz Aschroft evokes the sweep of prairie and ripples down diaphanous backdrops of huts still filtering sky and thus frailty in the hut so perilously depicted. But her designer coup lies in the second act, something I’d never expect in a touring production. It emphasizes how first-rate this is. Everything snaps and sings with a lyric devastation that asks with Guthrie just whose land this is, in a year where presidential elections have seen the US population ask the same question for the first time in generations.