The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck, in a new adpatation by Tim Baker
Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold
(2006)

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Standing ovations appear the likely order of the evening at Clwyd Theatre Cymru after performances of Tim Baker’s gripping production of John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece of depression America, The Grapes of Wrath.

Baker’s new stage adaptation of the 200,000 word chronicle of itinerants travelling across the US from one state of poverty to another is only the second to be approved by the Steinbeck family.

After relating their plight in stories published in the San Fransisco News, Steinbeck joined the travellers on a 1937 pilgrimage along Highway 66 from the Oklahoma dustbowl to California fruit and cotton fields where they were to find no more work and even less prosperity than in the homes they had left.

With original music by Dyfan Jones, Baker harnesses the talents of sixteen actors, with eighteen children, to produce a remarkably rich example of ensemble playing.

Characters are not, therefore, specifically identified in the programme, yet it would be churlish not to acknowledge the performance of Lyn Hunter as Ma Joad, which is pivotal to the entire production.

Bradley Freegard is a formidable Tom Joad, the role played famously in the 1940 film by Henry Fonda, and there is a notable performance, too, by John Cording as the preacher, with Gwyn Vaughan Jones as Pa Joad.

An almost entirely Welsh cast, schooled by dialogue coach Sally Hague, produce for our wondering eyes a roving family caravan of all ages, veterans grampa and gramma who both succumb to the cruel trail along the way, and youngsters for whom this long journey offers their only hope of future.

Many of the company are trained musicians who, with Jones’s melancholy score, add colour and potency to the grim narrative. Their strumming evokes the pathos of Woody Guthrie's sad lyrics and their faces assume the images of Dorothea Lange’s contemporary black and white photographs.

Max Jones’s design is as stark as the rest of the performance, its bleak simplicity leaving the actors to tell the real story of their surroundings amid the unyielding, hostility of both big country and many of the strangers, deputies and con-men encountered en route.

After Ma’s opening soliloquy, the gaunt backdrop opens to a frame of the Joad family as they prepare their battered motor truck, one of thousands which rolled across the state line into the sunshine state in the late 1930’s. Here and there are glimpses of the American scene, a tiny white church or ranch on the plain.

Things could hardly be worse, yet, after the interval, somehow they are. Heavy rains, brilliantly created by mists which soak the stage, destroy the cotton crops of their new world and weary, often sick migrants trudge from floods to the shelter of abandoned rail wagons.

There’s a deeper social message too, symbolised by Pa’s crumbling leadership of the household and ma’s assertion that he can give the orders when he earns the money. What price then American manhood!

Steinbeck’s four months work on the great account of his pilgrimage mirrors the burden of the travellers themselves. “The rain, the birth, the flood and the barn , the starving man and the last scene that has been ready so long if I can finish today I don’t much care what happens afterwards.”

The production continues until Saturday, 7th October.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole