OF MICE AND MEN
OF MICE AND MEN, Sport for Jove and the Seymour Centre at the Reginald Theatre, 9 July-1 August; Canberra Theatre Centre, 6-8 August 2015. Photography by Marnya Rothe, above: Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley; right: Anthony Gooley.
Adapted from one of John Steinbeck’s best known Depression era novellas, Of Mice and Men is a story of – among other things – friendship, prejudice, love and loss, poverty and oppression. If you think that sounds too gloomy for a night out, please think again. On the one hand, Steinbeck’s writing is beautiful in its own right. On the other, quite simply, this is a marvellous production.
Sport for Jove’s latest, directed by the brilliant Iain Sinclair, centres around an unforgettable performance from Andrew Henry as the tragic Lennie. He’s paired with an equally memorable Anthony Gooley as his friend and reluctant protector George; and they are supported by a company of similarly fine actors and a fine creative team.
It was Scottish poet Robert Burns who wrote, “the best laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley” (often go awry) but the late great cartoonist Mel Calman contemporised the thought as, “the best laid plans of mice and men are filed away somewhere.” And that seems even more apposite for this tale of hopes and dreams lost even as the dreamers continue to strive towards what has been mislaid. As Iain Sinclair observes in his program notes: “We reach for our dreams in a way that exposes us to the cruelty of only realising them briefly. It’s a cruel story but it makes you cling ever more tightly to the consolation of your dreams.”
George and Lennie are itinerant labourers, travelling the back blocks of rural California from job to job, farm to farm; scrounging and scrambling a meagre living doing whatever the unskilled and unlucky can find in the Great Depression. The two men could not be more different: George is sharp, smart and cynical, Lennie is a big shambling bear, soft of heart and soft in the head. Their dream is to save the stake to buy a few acres and make a life with a pig, maybe a cow, some chickens and – Lennie plaintively begs – don’t forget the rabbits.
Lennie’s love of small soft things is the key to his childlike sweetness and also his downfall. The play opens with George making him give up the mouse he’s been carrying in his pocket. It’s dead. He accidentally killed it but has continued to pet it and love it, not realising what he’s done. Lennie necessarily lives in the moment as he can remember little of what happens from day to day.
This introduction to the two men and their poor lives takes place in a twilit clearing beside a stream, surrounded by brush and not far from their destination of yet another backbreaking job on a grain farm. It’s been a hot, dusty day and is now a hot dusty evening. All this is clear from the script but also from the dishevelled appearance of the men – you’d swear you can smell the old sweat and grime of their tattered clothes and battered bodies.
And the simple setting of dirt and bark chips that cover the Reginald’s floor is punctuated by four log posts and surrounded by rough-hewn timber walls. This morphs into the bunkhouse when they arrive at the farm with the addition of a rickety table, rickety beds, a rickety lamp and a few rickety orange crates for the men’s comfort. (Design by Michael Hankin with assistant costume designer Georgia Hopkins and lighting designer Sian James-Holland).
The play begins desultorily in a way that suggests Lennie and George’s deep weariness. Lennie’s mental slowness makes any conversation frustrating and George teeters between patience, annoyance and fear: Lennie’s condition has got them in trouble more than once before. A sense of foreboding and nervy anticipation gradually infects the bewildered Lennie and the quickening pace seeps across the footlights to the audience as the two men finally present themselves at the farm to secure their new jobs.
The small dramas of the bunkhouse begin to play out as both Lennie and George try to keep their noses clean. The Boss (Terry Serio, who also contributes some lovely scene-setting slide and blues guitar fragments) is suspicious of the man who will not speak and the one who does all the talking, but Lennie’s obvious heft and willingness to work persuades him to take them on – under sufferance.
Lennie isn’t as lucky with the boss’s psycho son Curley (Andre de Vanny, a new face from Melbourne and a performance of unnerving malevolence). The diminutive and therefore aggressive Curley instantly sniffs out Lennie’s vulnerability and it seems obvious that there will be trouble between them despite Lennie’s wretched attempts to be invisible.
Also on the losing side of life is the one-armed oldie Candy (Laurence Coy). His constant companion is a smelly old sheepdog (astonishingly well-cast dear old sheepdog) and when Carlson (John McNeill) insists it’s time to shoot the dog mainly because it’s stinking the place out the inevitability of what happens is shocking. On opening night there were tears and a shriek in the audience.
Not so shocking, and therefore desperately sad, is that none of the other men – Slim, Crooks and Whit (Tom Stokes, Christopher Stollery and Charles Allen rounding out the stellar cast) – do much to demur beyond an awkward mutter and averted eyes. The significance of the men’s casual brutality and lack of empathy is telling and ominous.
The final piece in the jigsaw that will become a complete picture of tragedy is the flitting arrival of Curley’s Wife (Anna Houston). She is looking for her husband, she chirrups, but in reality she’s lonely and after two weeks, already regretting her marriage. That she is trouble is plain to George, but all Lennie sees is her soft hair and skin and pretty dress. She could be a rabbit or a mouse, but his overwhelming desire to touch such things is beyond dangerous.
Of Mice and Men is great theatre. The casting is sublime, the production is handsome. A pity the playwright wasn’t in the house to see it. Not to be missed.