Of Mice and Men. By John Steinbeck. Directed by Iain Sinclair. A Sport For Jove Theatre Company and Seymour Centre co-production. The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre. Until August 8. Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au.
John Steinbeck's hauntingly simple story of two itinerant farm workers drifting through the Great Depression in 1930s America is brought to powerful life in Sport for Jove's production.
George (Anthony Gooley) has somehow, somewhere, taken on responsibility for Lennie (Andrew Henry). They are an unlikely pair. George treats Lennie as a constantly errant child as they arrive at a farm to take up work. Lennie has no capacity to remember the reasons for their hasty leaving of the previous job, driven as he is by his seemingly simple desires for soft things, like mice and puppies, which his strength will eventually inadvertently kill. Both men are also sustained by a dream of possessing a small farm somewhere which will take them out of the cycle of wandering from job to job.
The ranch they arrive at is full of lonely men. Candy (Laurence Coy) is ageing with his dog. Whit (Tom Stokes) talks wistfully of the brothel in town. The one black worker, Crooks (Charles Allen) sits in a lonely room of his own, surrounded by books, barred from the communal bunkhouse because of his colour.
Even the married Curley (Andre de Vanny) never seems to end up in the same space as his restless wife (Anna Houston). Curley's wife, never named in the piece, roams the ranch ostensibly looking for Curley but actually in search of human contact. The men collectively avoid this because they fear trouble. Only the inarticulate Lennie, in the end, ironically, will have a conversation with her.
Gooley and Henry are at the centre as George and Lennie and you could not ask for a better duo to catch that relationship. But Iain Sinclair's production creates a very strong ensemble in support with a superb sense of the difficulties of the men's lives, the desperation of the woman who comes among them and the dreams of independence which take fire among the men when Candy's small nest egg looks to George like a way to freedom.
There's occasional live music, with guitar and mouth organ to sharpen the mood. Michael Hankins' set, with its wooden columns and loose earth floor, evokes the sparse conditions that these people live in, augmented by the imaginative and warm lighting of Sian James–Holland. In fact at certain moments the lighting design becomes an object lesson in how to strongly shape and heighten crucial action.
Opening night's audience responded to the piece with its twists and mood and power with indrawn breaths and utterly solid applause for this version of Steinbeck's small modern tragedy. It is just a pity that the season is so short.