Friday, August 7, 2015

Of Mice & Men - Canberra Theatre Centre

Review by John Lombard

“Hey, George.”  John Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men is centred on an unlikely friendship: brains George (Anthony Gooley) and brawn Lennie (Andrew Henry).  Lennie is a child’s mind in a hulking body, devoted to petting mice but inevitably crushing them with his great strength: he literally loves animals to death.  George is his friend and minder, doing the talking for Lennie and doing his best to keep him out of trouble, sometimes with a little tough love.
Both are ranch workers who tramp the California dust bowl for hard labour during the Great Depression.  Lennie’s great strength makes him a formidable worker, and by allying with him George ensures he will always have a meal and a bed.  But Lennie is a lot of work, too, and George is fully aware that by having Lennie to look after he has too much responsibility to squander the little money he earns on booze and women.  They are sustained by their shared dream of earning enough to get a farm of their own, an impossible goal for most ranch workers but one that their partnership makes tantalisingly achievable.
The friendship between Lennie and George is bizarre: they have so little in common that it is an act of faith, a decision to love one another rather than being lonely.  Loneliness is the villain here: it doesn’t matter what is said, or whether people understand each other other, as long as they talk, as long as they have that chance to be connected.  All though the play, we see isolation beating people down.  Stablehand Crooks (Charles Allen) has to spend his nights alone because the other ranch workers won’t mix with a black man, while the wife of the ranch owner’s son (Anna Houston) is going crazy because her jealous husband leaves won’t let her see anyone.  Lennie and George’s bond changes all the rules, and their support for each other inspires other people to come out of their isolation and work together to make a bleak world liveable.
Steinbeck’s script is extraordinarily well-constructed, and director Iain Sinclair’s crisp storytelling fully realises this brilliant work.  This is the rare play where even the scene changes are interesting: changing the set is cleverly choreographed so that it looks and sounds like the harvest workers at labour.  The economy in the storytelling means that the direction of the story is often predictable, but we care so much for the characters that we hope they can escape the inevitable.
But the greatest strength of this play is its focus on love.  Lennie is a big kid, and he loves and feels grief with such extraordinary passion that we instantly connect with him.  When he is desperate for a new puppy we want him to have it just because it makes him feel so much joy, but like George we have a parental wariness that he can only have it if he can treat it well.  From the opening scene with George and Lennie bantering on the road we know this will be an extraordinary warm play, and even when sorrow and reality intrude on the dreams they have built the love the characters have for each other is redemptive.  An excellent realisation of an extraordinary play.