Friday, August 7, 2015

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, adapted from his novella (1937).  A Sport for Jove Theatre Company and Seymour Centre Co-Production (Sydney) directed by Iain Sinclair.  At Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, August 6-9, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 6

When I read the original story by Steinbeck, which must have been about 50 years ago when I was young and imagined myself to be an intellectual, I thought his characters and the storyline were too obviously cardboard cutouts – polemically expounding his political standpoint.

This production has opened my mind to appreciating a greater depth of understanding in Steinbeck’s work.  Rather than being nothing more than a kind of agit-prop railing against capitalism, Of Mice and Men is a broader study of how any human society sets traps for everybody – for those who appear to be in power as much as for those who are powerless. 

We see today’s version of this state of affairs every day all around our world of instant dissemination of news and commentary much more clearly than in the slower-paced past.  Instead of people’s treatment of each other appearing to fit into simply defined containers – socialism, capitalism – we now seem to have myriad containers spilling mayhem all over the place.  So political leaders fall back on “axis of evil”, “western decadence”, “work-choices”, “middle-class welfare”, “freedom of speech”, re-establishing the “Caliphate” and so many equally indefinable terms, that we all feel like the dysfunctional characters in Of Mice and Men, and end up destroying lives.  Irrationally like Lenny (or Islamic State beheading people), and seeming rationally like George (or Turkey bombing both PKK Kurds and ISIS, while being on the same side as Kurdish Peshmerga against ISIS, while PKK Kurds explode suicide bombs in Istanbul).  Killing the irrational is not the solution to irrational killing, however rational it may appear.  This is the trap that has led to Australia’s inhumane detention centres set up to deter the resulting seekers of asylum from other terrible conflict zones from drowning at sea.  We have become George shooting Lennie to save him from being shot by the boss’s son Curley.

It’s a dim view, and a terribly sad picture.  Iain Sinclair’s directing, in Michel Hankin’s ostensibly simple yet very clever set design, lit in shadows by Sian James-Holland and with Georgia Hopkins’ costumes and hair designs, recreates an image of the loneliness of Steinbeck’s Great Depression, emphasised by the solo slide guitar and single-notes wistful folk harmonica.  Each character is trapped in their own way.  At the end of Act 1 we can feel the omens of disaster which we see fulfilled in Act 2.  It’s like watching an Ancient Greek tragedy in twentieth century America, and we feel these same omens in the 21st Century.

The play is full of silences – long minutes of silence with no movement beyond maybe someone’s eyes turning from one to another’s face, afraid to initiate a worse state of mood or action than the one before the silence.  Setting up these moods and sustaining those silences – in us in the audience – was a measure of the strengths of the actors and the discipline of the directing.

Then there is the skill in Scott Witt’s directing of movement from the violence of Curley’s attack on Lennie and Lennie’s response; to Lennie’s uncomprehending killing of  Curley’s wife; – right through to Anna Houston’s long, long time lying dead in full view, until Laurence Coy as the failing old man Candy lifts the dead weight under her armpits and slowly – oh so slowly – drags her into the wings silhouetted by a dim moonlike light.  The modern word to describe this scene is ‘visceral’ – you feel it in your guts.

Even after three curtain calls to continuous applause, I found the spell was not broken.  I needed just to sit and stare at the empty stage, needing to maintain the silence and the stillness even as others apologetically tiptoed past my knees.  It was good, then to meet up with John McNeill and Iain Sinclair, recall the past times in their Canberra theatre lives and sense how deeply they have felt about the work on Of Mice and Men.  McNeill said the key was Sinclair’s intellectual depth and sense of how he let Steinbeck’s words speak for themselves.

Iain Sinclair is quite a lot older now than I was when I first read Of Mice and Men – in fact he was probably about that age when I first reviewed his work with Elbow Theatre Company in 1998.  He was an intellectual then when I wrote of avant garde Elbow: The quality of their irony is not strained: a compliment to the intelligence of the writers, performers and director, Iain Sinclair.  I feel I have been waiting for this to happen in Canberra.  All that I hoped for then has come to fruition in this production, proving that my youthful intellectualism was nothing to compare with Sinclair’s artistry then and even more now.

Whatever the nature of Steinbeck’s vision of society, I can only say it’s a great feeling to be surpassed by the quality of thought and art in this production and to have my ancient limited understanding of Of Mice and Men broadened and deepened.  There is great sadness in the content of the play, but great joy in its performance.

Anthony Gooley – George
Andrew Henry – Lennie
Laurence Coy – Candy
Christopher Stollery – Slim
Anna Houston – Curley’s Wife
Andre de Vanny – Curley
Charles Allen – Crooks
John McNeill – Carlson
Tom Stokes – Whit
Terry Serio – The Boss