Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is one of my favourite novels, and so I was apprehensive about whether this play version would deliver the story that I loved with as much understated tragedy as I remembered. But I had nothing to worry about, the style and delivery were faultless.
A fairly simple set (designed by Jess Bennett) consisted of a few sacks, ramshackle plank walls, simple chairs and boxes, and an impressionistic mauve and orange-streaked skyscape as a backdrop that was complemented by naturalistic sound effects (designed by Emily Cook) of crickets, dogs barking and the wind whistling. The opening of the play and each scene change was marked by offstage drumming or the actors singing Depression-era choral music as they set the stage. The moments of singing felt raw and melancholy, and definitely served to tip me over the edge emotionally when the play drew to a close.
Directed by Tanith Landon, the play took as its focus loneliness and self-interest in contrast with the Lennie and George’s companionship and sense of responsibility for one another. Their travelling together is a point for comment from other characters throughout the piece; “Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no family. They don’t belong no place… With us it ain’t like that. We got a future.” The loneliness of the lifestyle of having to work ranch after ranch, living where the road takes you and existing on dreams is what ties the characters loosely together. There are also more complex cases of loneliness; Crooks (played with bitter humour by Roger Carvalho) because of the colour of his skin, and Curley’s wife, because she has been forced into a setting where there is no suitable company for her, and if she ventures to talk to any of the men she is shooed away as being trouble. Played by Ariel Harrison as a tragically self-deluded femme fatale, Curley’s wife unfortunately does cause trouble wherever she goes, but manages to draw the audience’s sympathy despite her desperate coquettishness.
The tragic ending of the play was heavily foreshadowed by the shooting of Candy’s dog, which Candy is bullied into agreeing to by Carlson. The escalating tension of the scene as they argue about the quality of life of the dog versus Candy’s emotional connection was powerful and difficult to watch. The play simmers along gently, with flash moments of violence, such as the fight between Curly and Lennie, and Lennie’s fateful struggle with Curly’s wife choreographed convincingly by Chris Wynn to leave an aftermath of shock and disbelief.
The play’s main strength however lay in the performances of George, played by Tarl Caple, and Lennie, played by Adam Diggle. Caple was superb, playing George as an honest, pragmatic and good-hearted man starting to grow weary of his responsibility of keeping Lennie out of trouble, but at the same time becoming seduced by his own story of getting a place where he and Lennie can be free, and Lennie kept out of trouble by tending to rabbits. Although he chides Lennie repeatedly with “If I was alone I’d live so easy”, the line takes on a horrible significance when the play reaches its climax and George has to do Lennie a final favour.
Diggle’s portrayal of Lennie is endearing and almost childlike in his delight for George’s tales, but has enough of an unpredictable edge to make the audience feel a sense of dread when he gets overexcited. Diggle’s facial control was masterful, subtly shifting from neutral into states of wonder, through fear and confusion, disappointment and dread through the filter of Lennie’s reduced state of understanding. Diggle gives a captivating performance that shows Lennie’s situation as the innocent but dangerous outsider. In one scene in particular his precarious situation is paralleled and contrasted with that of Curley’s wife, also an outsider considered dangerous to a different extent, as they talk about what makes them happy in the lead up to the incident that decides Lennie’s fate.
Strong and persuasive acting coupled with tense and sensitive direction made this a piece that moved me to tears.
Of Mice and Men is playing at the Brockley Jack Theatre until 24th September. Information and tickets from the Brockley Jack Theatre’s website.