The outsiders: Sport for Jove’s Of Mice and Men

Published in 1937, John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men tells the story of two displaced itinerant workers, looking for work in Depression-era California. Based on his own experiences in the 1920s, Steinbeck’s book is a haunting and non-judgemental view of the world, something which ripples through a lot of his work from the 1930s and 40s. In an adaptation written by Steinbeck himself, Sport for Jove’s production – currently playing in the Seymour Centre’s Reginald theatre – is tight, elegant, mesmerising and atmospheric, richly evocative of the hardship of the era.

Originally called “Something That Happened,” Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is one of the great classic American novels (or novellas), in that it focuses on the journey of George and Lennie, two dreamers with their plan to get a little place of their own and ‘live off the fat of the land.’ Rather than descending into sentimentality, the play – along with the book – expresses emotion and feeling in a tightly-controlled way, in an objective style, sustained by Steinbeck’s “awareness of the genuine loneliness and tragedy of displaced Americans,” as Susan Shillinglaw writes. The novella’s original title is evocative also of the story’s unfolding – as a chronicle of something that happened, and the events leading up to it – and the play captures this quality beautifully.
Directed by Iain Sinclair and designed by Michael Hankin, the play is staged in what looks like the inside of a barn – all long planks of wood, light creeping in between them, rich golden light, long dark shadows, inky darkness. Coupled with a dirt floor, there is something immediately tangible and emotionally pulling about this setting which take us instantly to the time and a place, such as Steinbeck’s America, when to live off the land and have your own dream of a place of your own, was The American Dream. (Whether consciously or not, there are also parallels to Sport for Jove’s outdoor season of The Crucible, staged at Bella Vista Farm late last year.) With Sinclair’s trademark honesty and rawness – or emotional weight, I guess you could call it – simple exchanges are charged with all kinds of depth and nuance, a mere glance or hand gesture becomes immensely significant. Coupled with Sian James-Holland’s lighting, Nate Edmondson’s sound design of the working ranch, and live guitar music by Terry Serio, there is a kind of simple perfection to this production which is hard to beat.
Sinclair’s cast are tremendous, more than capably led by Andrew Henry as Lennie and Anthony Gooley as George. Good friends off-stage, there is an easy companionship between the two which makes their characters seem more like real people. While Lennie is the larger and taller of two, it falls to George to look after both of them, often answering for Lennie, protecting him as much as keeping him out of trouble. There’s a poignancy to Lennie’s care and attention towards small animals – like the mouse and puppy he hides in his pocket – as much as to his wide-eyed dream of living off ‘the fat of the land’ which he gets George to retell at regular opportunities. But there’s also a darker undercurrent here, Lennie’s raw power and strength, which often gets him into trouble, and is the reason we find them on the road at the beginning of the play, the reason why the play is so charged. The play’s conclusion – as in the book – is heartbreaking, as the two friends are pushed to the brink; as the moment reaches its climax, there was more than one gasp from the audience, and it is bittersweet, violent, and a kick to the guts which leaves you reeling as you step into the cold night.
The rest of the cast, while many of them have only a few lines, all have warmth, integrity, grit, and truth in their characters, in their performances. But there is also a loneliness to them as well, a distance between themselves and their relationships with each other which aches, the way that each and every one of them is an outsider to the others, all from their private worlds and pasts, each heading towards their own private futures. Particularly strong are Christopher Stollery’s Slim, Charles Allen’s Crooks (who shines a light onto the racial and, by extension, sexist elements of the story), and Andre de Vanny’s flighty, menacing, hot-headed Curley. But the other true outsider in the story is Curley’s wife, played by Anna Houston with luminosity and warmth, an ache to talk to someone, to be with someone, to just be in the same room as someone; it is this ache which eventually leads to the play’s harrowing conclusion. Rather than the ‘tramp’ or ‘slut’ or ‘tart’ as she is labelled in the story, she has her own problems, her own life, and is not defined by the labels she is given by the men; in the world of the play, though, we see her through the men’s eyes, and thus don’t really see what Steinbeck was trying to make us see in her.

Unlike other novelists who turn to writing for the theatre as a way to diversify their output, Steinbeck’s play is a true theatrical work. Tough, uncompromising, as clear and sharp as glass, and with no trace of pretension, Steinbeck turns his novella into a series of long haunting scenes or exchanges, many of which play out between two people, and ache with a loneliness which is all too tangible. In the play, as much as his novella, Steinbeck writes to force you “to see yourself, to expose the depth of your own intolerance, prejudice, cruelty, and naiveté,” and this production captures it with aplomb, and proves yet again how sometimes the best laid plans do indeed oft go awry.

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