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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.