Theatre Royal Bath until 6 May Words by Melissa Blease
Poverty, racism, prejudice, toxic masculinity and oppression: John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella can hardly be described as an easy read. It’s been a frequent target for all manner of censors ever since its original publication, and even today still sits in the upper echelons of the American Library Association’s ‘Most Challenged Books of the 21st Century’ charts, tagged with multiple outrages and grievances for themes including profanity, violence, misogyny, racist language… and, from one US school board, an “anti-business attitude”.
So! Major kudos to Iqbal Khan, Associate Director at the Birmingham Rep (and Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony Director), for breathing fresh attitude, comprehension and perspective into a quietly radical new staging of a controversial literary classic in a quietly startling co-production with Leeds Playhouse and Fiery Angel.
Close friends Lennie and George are, like many others during the American Great Depression era, economic migrants travelling from coast to coast in search of work, wages and, ultimately, a worthwhile existence. But in a time where those who have plenty aren’t willing to share much with those who have less than nothing, the duo’s dreams of a brighter future are set to turn into a very dark nightmare.
The Birmingham Rep specifically targeted their casting towards disabled and neurodivergent performers to take the role of Lennie, a character with multiple challenges – and Wiliam Young rises to the challenge with sensitive subtlety, bringing integrity, humanity and sheer, unadulterated poignancy to the tale. Young dedicates his role “to anyone with a learning disability who also loves performing but hasn’t had the opportunity to land any professional roles… yet”; for all those looking for inspiration across the board, Young’s the man to look to. Playing opposite him as best friend (and, as we’d perceive him today, dedicated carer?) George, Tom McCall flits between authoritative, clear-headed ‘grown up’ and struggling optimist over-burdened by responsibility; even before the drama’s tragic denouement, George’s tortured emotional pain is palpable.
Elsewhere, Lee Ravitz brings tearjerking authenticity to his portrayal of frail elderly farmhand Candy, and Riad Richie brings Curley – the boss’s son, laden with Napoleon Complex issues – to chillingly twisted-macho life. Meanwhile, throughout the slow-burn drama, Ciarán Bagnall’s artfully minimalist set/lighting complemented by Elizabeth Purnell’s hauntingly evocative soundscapes work in harmony with the ensemble cast to further highlight the ongoing contextual theme that there’s little light to strive for at the end of the dark-times tunnel in which Lennie and George’sstory is set.
But has Khan shoehorned Steinbeck’s original text into a contemporary version of a ‘parable for our times’? No – he’s done something much cleverer than that. In offering a time capsule snapshot into the past, he’s presented us with a powerful reminder that, despite the best efforts driven by all those who have bravely fought (and continue to fight) for societal change, the past is not entirely the different country that we so blithely consider it to be.
Main image: Wiliam Young as Lennie and Tom McCall as George. Photo by Mark Senior.