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Review Of Mice and Men at the Chapter Seligman Studio presented by August 012

(2 / 5)

 

August 012 performs John Steinbeck’s  Of Mice and Men for laughs and misses the mark by a country mile!

Introduction and Background

John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella was a new genre of work that Steinbeck invented. In his own words, it was strictly, neither a novel or a play, but a play/novelette.  In his eyes, he recognised that the novel was in a moribund state, but theatre was “coming alive”.  This genre used chapters for curtains and is scened in such a way that it can directly be transformed into a play. He eventually decided to write a play,  “in the physical technique of a novel.”

The story is about two itinerant farm workers who travel the road looking for work during the Great Depression of the United States in the early 1930’s.  Steinbeck was born and brought up in Salinas in California, and he witnessed the impact of over 300,00 migratory workers from the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma and primarily and other prairie states had on his part of California.

The two workers, George who is intelligent and worldly but uneducated, and Lenny, his mentally disabled companion. They both dream of living in a better place in a better world, but their destinies are realised when they arrive to work at a plantation.

It is easy to relate this to the current situation in South Wales in terms of disillusionment and lack of hope, the displacement of individuality.  The explosion of migratory workers suggests, (without the nationalistic connotations), to the reasons why many people voted for Brexit last year.  So, it’s an ideal play to put on in this location and social climate.

The first production of the play, at the Theater Union of San Francisco opened to favourable reviews on 21st May 1937 and shortly afterwards.  it opened on Broadway, with legendary actor Broderick Crawford as Lenny.

If you look at the photograph of Lenny and George above, one thing that strikes me is that it heightens the claustrophobic intensity which is a feature of both the play and the novel. George and Lenny are trapped in their own sad world, and this has to be an essential feature of any production of Of Mice and Men.

August 012 Production Of Mice and Men

CAST

Anthony Corria; Sara Gregory; Neal McWilliams; Tom Mumford; Wil Young

All actors, with the exception of the two protagonists, George (McWilliams) and Lenny (Young) play multiple parts.

Director: Mathilde Lopez

Set Design: Tina Torbey

Lighting: Ace McCarron

Sara Gregory

Wil Young

Neal McWilliams

Tom Mumford

Anthony Corria

 Production Design

Just before entering the auditorium, I had a brief conversation with a member of the production team. The show had been sold out for its entire run, so, due to its popularity, I asked her whether it would tour. She answered in the negative, saying that the production was an expensive one due to the stage design, and it had been tailor made for the venue. So, then I asked her whether it would be brought back later on and she stated that this is a possibility, due to the demand from local schools, many of which were unable to be catered for during the run. I also overheard her say that this production had drawn from both the book and play sources.

Upon entering the space, I could see why touring is an impossibility. The stage had been crafted in such a way that it fitted the shape of the auditorium and could not be easily adapted to another space . There is no central stage, and effectively, it is a theatre in the round, with audience seated on each side.

Located in roughly all four corners were microphones and a dozen lampshades, some lit are overhead. Wide spaces between the rows of seat, enables the actors to move freely around. This results in a slightly negative way for you either have to turn your ahead around to see all of the action, or use your imagination.

The Show

When the play starts, Lenny and George are speaking to each other using the microphones and at diagonally opposite sides of the auditorium. This destroys the intimate, claustrophobic essential feature of the story immediately.

There is a great deal of audience participation in the production. This is fun, but, again, distracts from being focused on George and Lenny’s enclosed existence. It all gets rather manic  from time to time.

However, My main criticism is based upon the way that the dreaming of a better world is played. Using a filmic technique, or at least, this is the impression it left on me, George spoke into his microphone with background music and such a way it parodied either Hollywood or itself. At times, George reminded me of a demented evangelist.

This technique is used to better effect when the only female in the story, Curley’s wife speaks in a highly sensualised way.

Another example where the integrity of the story is shattered is with the shooting of Candy’s dog. This is a very important segment of the story. Candy’s old sheepdog had outlived its usefulness and according to Carson’s blunt should be put down as it stunk out the bunkhouse. The death foreshadows Lenny’s shooting by George at the story’s finale and also symbolises, through a developing pattern of creatures being crushed by Lenny, and ultimately, the fate of the rabbits and via, the fate of the Safe House”, the idealised world that the protagonists and Candy dream of.

The part of the dog is selected by a random member of the audience, who is led off stage to its fate. The audience member, naturally, looking a little embarrassed and smiling nervously, trudges off to the great amusement of everyone, thereby killing the dramatic impact. I didn’t hear a shot offstage, which might have readdressed the balance. Candy, later returns with copious amount of blood on his hands and the audience dog “actor” returns to his seat.

Neal McWilliams, (George) is the pick of the actors on display and Sara Gregory provides some nice cameos. She has to play both Curley and his wife, and if I am not mistaken, the role of Candy is played by two different members of the cast. This is a little confusing, but difficult to avoid with only five actors cast.

Another feature that didn’t work was the interchanging between the use of the microphone and natural voice within the same soliloquy. I didn’t see the point of this and I feel that it distracts from what is being said.

Summary

Of Mice and Men is a study of the hopes and dreams of men and of the necessity for men to have dreams. But these hopes and dreams are contrasted with the reality of the harsh world in which men must exist,
and the setting, costumes, lighting, and acting style must reflect this concept of contrast.

This is taken from a dissertation from undergraduate student Saralee O’Neill approved by the Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech University in 1985. It sums up my argument perfectly. Being innovative, which this production most certainly is, doesn’t necessarily make it good theatre. The integrity of the story and Steinbeck’s deep feelings on this subject have to be maintained. Steinbeck wrote what he felt and what he knew about firsthand.

I concede that this production is very entertaining. The majority of the audience were senior school students, and, in the most part, their attention was maintained throughout, which is a considerable achievement in itself. I have taught this novella at University in China, and I wonder whether the students really were truly informed about this work of literature based upon what they had watched. I am of the opinion, that they hadn’t.

If your “Theatre bag” is of the One Man, Two Guvnors ilk, then you will probably love this production, but Steinbeck – it ain’t.

The run ended on 28th October 2017, but may return.

Roger Barrington

 

 

 

Review/Discussion: Of Mice and Men

During the afternoon of Saturday, October 28th, I took a little journey back in time. As an English Literature student at University some of the books I studied back in GCSE feel like a lifetime away. So, when I was given the opportunity to see Of Mice and Men, one of the most well-known of these GCSE books, brought to life on stage at Cardiff’s Chapter Arts Centre I was immediately intrigued.

This production put on by August.012, has unfortunately finished it’s run at the Chapter Arts Centre. So, for this article, I’m still going to include some aspects of reviewing the production but I’m mainly going to focus on the adaptation of the text specifically and any intriguing differences which were included and I’ll discuss how these changes affect the text and its place in today’s culture. Just a little heads up, there is so much in this production that this is going to be a long article but if you just want a review of the production you can read Troy Lenny’s review here.

Mathilde Lopez directs an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella that tells the story of two unlikely travelling companions Lennie Small and George Milton. They travel from ranch to ranch in California seeking work during the Great Depression in order to achieve their very own American Dream of independence and security. Along the way, they encounter themes of loyalty, injustice, race and even sexuality. Thanks to both the education system and the internet the spoilers concerning the end of this novella are widely known, but I will still attempt to be sensitive to those who may have managed to avoid spoilers so far.

This production constantly blurs the line between the setting of the Great Depression and the 21st Century. The setting of the ranch is still the same and the theme of the American Dream is still very strong. However, there are changes to the script which flicker between major and minor that addresses 21st century elements like the set, the microphones and even prawn cocktail crisps. The more major changes will be addressed below when I talk about specific characterisation. While these flippant mentions of 21st-century aspects were certainly startling when I first sat down they certainly made the difference between our time and theirs starker but also more familiar.

In my opinion, this production uses this blend to bring out themes that aren’t normally connected with Of Mice and Men. For example. Curley’s fight with Lennie is commentated on like a modern boxing match by Slim and George through the microphones. To me, this brought out the theme of observation and watching, especially connected with the lack of context the other characters have concerning Lennie and some of his actions. Another example of this comes in the ending. The final recitation of George and Lennie’s American Dream in this production, to me, had a more solid connection with heaven or at least a heavenly state that was an unobtainable state on Earth. The level of acting in this moment is really something special as this becomes more George’s realisation despite it affecting Lennie more directly.

A cast of just five carries this show. I found this aspect very intriguing as certain actors had to double up. George and Lennie remain completely grounded throughout the whole show but I was amazed by the flexibility of the three actors who had to constantly switch from character to character. I like to think that one of the most intriguing switches shows just how far we have come from this period of racial segregation. The character of Crooks is always an integral part of any reading or performance of Of Mice and Men because of his comments regarding his experience and actual implementation of racial segregation. However, due to the actors doubling up the ranch owner and Curley’s father is actually played by the same actor as Crooks. While there is no added comment on the ranch owner being of any different ethnicity it is certainly an intriguing angle to take considering the setting of the text.

I found Curley and Curley’s Wife being played by the same female actor very interesting as John Steinbeck himself, to paraphrase, stated that Curley’s Wife is not a person, she is a symbol and, specifically, a threat to Lennie. She is also mainly examined as an example of a wife being the property of her husband, so to have these two characters played by the same actress not only emphasises how she has no independence beyond her husband it also highlights that Curley has barely any independece beyond her. I think that this is a very intriguing way to give Curley’s Wife more prominence and, in my opinion quite rightly, play down any threatening nature Curley may have had.

In my opinion, I liked how this production gave Curley’s Wife more weight. Sara Gregory’s vehemence when talking to Crooks makes Curley’s Wife far more threatening than I ever remember her being and I love it. While in her main scene they move away slightly from the original text I think that these additions are certainly useful for younger audiences to see what must be added to the dialogue and her character to make her a woman you may see in the 21st century and how this differs from the text’s setting. She is far more hysteric and actually goes to the point of reigniting her denied dream of acting in Hollywood and reaches the point of leaving her husband. This vital addition makes her death all the more tragic as a comment that a woman in the setting of not only the ranch but also the Great Depression could never leave her husband, let alone achieve her long lost dreams. It’s certainly an interesting take on a deliberately vague character who was written to be barely human.

Even with these intriguing differences, one of the most interesting and outstanding parts of this play for me was actually seemingly a throwaway line from Lennie. He says it so quickly that some may have missed it but it actually is a massively important line to insert into the direct dialogue of Of Mice and Men. It is clear in the book and subsequent films that Lennie is, in some way, mentally disabled. However, it is never directly stated in the text what form this takes. The closest we get is George’s fabrication that Lennie was kicked in the head by a horse but Lennie questions this and it becomes clear that all we got was a fabricated explanation from George. This production completely changes that. Lennie states that George has said he has Dyspraxia.

This is another monumental change that may seem small but it highlights the vast difference between the setting of Of Mice and Men and the 21st Century and between ambiguity which makes Lennie quite frightening to those who don’t know why he is different and a time where the condition is known and labelled. I also like that this then adds weight to the questions of intent and knowledge from an outsider’s perspective concerning Lennie’s character. Is the reason that George sticks by Lennie after all of the bad things he has done because he has knowledge of Lennie’s specific condition and he knows that he is not a bad person because of this? It certainly adds so much more to their relationship.

The production also stood out in the way the deaths of certain characters were presented. There are two main deaths of human characters in Of Mice and Men and both have become very well known to the point of fame. This production did not let down this reputation. The first was very brutal and clear in its use of physical action to show exactly how that death came about. The second brought a spectacular building of tension which I felt directly despite knowing what was coming. The lighting in this finale was also spectacular and I like that they decided to use lighting rather than loud sound effects.

The only death depiction that I wasn’t a fan of was how the death of Candy’s dog was handled. I understand that Of Mice and Men can get quite heavy but I just wasn’t a fan of the use of audience participation which turned the shooting of Candy’s dog into a more comic moment. I really liked how Carson came in with (in the setting of the play) the dog’s blood on his arms and this could have been a very dramatic moment but it was mismatched with the comedy that came before.

In conclusion, as a student who has studied this book to see it put on stage in such an intriguing way with some inspiring changes that highlight both how far we have come and also how close we still are to the troubling time and setting of America’s Great Depression despite the difference in the country. For the most part, the execution of these changes was also very well done by August.012 and I would be very interested in seeing how they could take on other books and forms of literature because I was so intrigued and impressed by this tackling of one of the most well known and controversial of novellas. For this reason, I’m giving this production four stars for its adaptation of Steinbeck’s classic.

An interview with actor Wil Young

Wil in rehearsals for Of Mice and Men

The Director of Get the Chance, Guy O’Donnell recently got the chance to chat to actor Wil Young. We discussed his career to date, his work with Hijinx Theatre, his role in a new production Of Mice and Men produced by August 012 and his thoughts on theatre in Wales today.

Hi Wil great to meet you, can you give our readers some background information on yourself please?

“Hi my name is Wil Young. I am 26 years old. I am based in Holyhead, North Wales. I’m a professional actor with autism. Through Hijinx Academy I have received professional training in acting, singing, dancing and mask work. My professional experience includes ‘Soup’ for the Hijinx Unity Festival. I can travel independently. I can learn and memorise scripts. I particularly enjoy my comedy acting.”

A performance of ‘Soup’ for Hijinx Unity Theatre Festival.

So what got you interested in theatre and the arts?

I’ve worked with Tim Baker on two productions. I’ve been with Hijinx for 3 years. I’ve been acting, if you can call it that, pretty much since I can remember.

Wil in rehearsals for Of Mice and Men

You are a member of Hijinx North Academy, one of 5 Academies in Wales. What activities do you get involved with in the Academy?

I do drama on Monday & Tuesday. I’ve done Unity in Cardiff & Caernarfon. The performances included ‘Soup’ which is a silent piece and ‘The Market’

You are playing the role of Lennie in Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, produced by August 012 at Chapter Arts Centre during October. Can you tell us how you came to be involved in this production?

I actually heard through Hijinx that they were auditioning for the part of Lenny and I tried out.

Wil in rehearsals for Of Mice and Men

Lennie is a very famous fictional character, Of Mice and Men is a set reading text at many schools across the world. How are you going to approach your portrayal of this character?

He’s basically like a big kid, so I thought of playing him younger than I would normally.

If you were able to fund an area of the arts in Wales what would this be and why?

I would invest in the Ucheldre Centre in North Wales, because it would also bring money to the island and the arts.

What excites you about the arts in Wales? What was the last really great thing that you experienced that you would like to share with our readers? 

There’s plenty of choice in Wales in terms of theatre. I recently saw the first Columbian Circus to be shown in Pontio, Bangor, North Wales. This was called Acelere by Circolombia.

Thanks for your time Wil.