The Grapes of Wrath
Adapted by Frank Galati from the novel by John Steinbeck
English Touring Theatre
West Yorkshire Playhouse and touring
I came to this production with two prejudices: I've loved Steinbeck, his concerns, perceptions, word choice, and rhythms since my teens; I've been increasingly dismayed by British actors assuming American accents for the last twenty years.
Mixed expectations then.
On press night the theatre is full. The set is a gloomy affair of timber flooring, a pool of water, a tottering, distorted clapboard house as backdrop. Sheaths of wheat stand like soldiers and pattern the timber flooring.
A cast of over twenty stroll on, take up the sheaths and walk off. Then the action begins. And, from memory, runs pretty close to the original text from beginning to end.
To jump to the end: the audience sits in stunned silence for a moment, then erupts into the emotional atmosphere which envelopes cast and audience like the precursor to a thunderstorm. I have the impression that some did not know the novel, or the actual conditions that inspired it: they are spellbound, awestruck, shocked.
It's Oklahoma in the nineteen thirties. The land has been exploited and depleted by tenant farmers, the farmers and their families exploited and depleted by Capitalism in general, the banks and insurance companies in particular. Dust storms suffocate the people, landowners' agents evict the people, destroy their timber houses. Lied to by agents of the fruit farming businesses of the west, the 'Oakies' head for California, the garden of Eden, the big rock candy mountain. The American Nightmare for real: bands of tattered dispossessed workers, their aspirations sinking: wealth, work, shelter... food.
We follow the Joad extended family and friends on this epic journey, see young and old adapting to the descent into hell, see the brutalised cops and guards abusing them. And, because Steinbeck is one of the great writers of the last century, we see the humanity glowing within them, good and bad alike.
None of the broad array of characters gets short shrift from the actors (and director), there are no thespy histrionics or attention seeking performances. And there are some wonderful performances, Oliver Cotton (as a characteristic Steinbeck creation: a preacher who 'got to thinking'); Christopher Timothy and Sorcha Cussack as Pa and Ma Joad, and well and so on. The lead actors in particular became near perfect media for their narrative roles. But there were no throw-away performances. And no overburdening of the narrative with uncalled for theatricality. We see projected ads on the backdrop, a stage flat pack car carries the family, there's a barber's shop quartet of car salesmen (Babits to a man), great soundtrack and a thunderstorm with real water - but each clarifies the dramatisation and never hinders.
And there are no crude attempts to push contemporary parallels in our faces. How easy to replace the brilliant 1930s projected ads with news clips of African refugees clinging to sinking boats or flitting in the shadows at Calais. Or indeed images of our own island's indigenous victims and winners in the squalid economic system that has multimillion bonuses and poverty. The novel and this adaptation are strong enough to create their own resonances.
This is a very honourable production which allows Steinbeck's words full scope to enter our souls. It should tour schools and theatres for a decade or so! Of course it's not perfect, such ambitious projects rarely, if ever, are. They are too courageous for perfection, big risks are taken.
Here's a quote from Will Kaufman's excellent programme notes. He is quoting Mary Owsley, a woman who suffered as did the fictional Joads, commenting on Steinbeck's novel: " I was never so proud of poor people before, as I was after I read that book." Steinbeck would have been proud of that, and I think he would have approved this production. I can think of no higher praise.
Playing to 14th November 2009
Steve Orme reviewed this production at Birmingham Rep
Reviewer: Ray Brown