A film, especially if it is a UK National theatre production, can add a whole new dimension to the experience of reading the original book. This is so true of John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’, still showing intermittently in Auckland if you are quick enough to find it.
What a shame it was damned with less than faint praise by the review in the New Zealand Herald
Unpromisingly, it is the story of the loneliness of men chasing heavy manual work in the barley fields of the Californian depression dustbowl. Mercifully we are spared portrayals of the actual physical labour, grim as it was. Steinbeck’s primary concern is with human relationships and the human need for connection.
George (James Franco), and simple-minded Lenny (Chris O’Dowd) who is too strong for his own good, travel together, look out for each other, and dream of living off “the fat of the land’. Their story unfolds alongside interactions with the other men on the ranch. The play’s title, courtesy Robbie Burns, reflects the final dashing of the dreams of George and Lenny for a better life together:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy
The world of Steinbeck’s 1930s was one of male suspicion and racial exclusion. Workers were generally isolated loners so it was highly unusual for two men to travel together as did George and Lennie. What I found compelling is that it felt honest and timeless even using a sophisticated 21st century lens. Steinbeck explores human connections of a deep and enduring nature outside of romantic attachment, and the longing for ownership and control of one’s own life. As human-beings we all need satisfying connections, a dream and a place of our own.
The film stays very close to the original book but there are unexpected rich nuances in Anna Shapiro’s masterly production. Unfortunately, the subtle layering seems to have gone over the head of NZ Herald reviewer, Peter Calder. He writes disparagingly:
“… Shapiro’s staging is conventional, even staid… at times the show feels more like a teaching aid for the popular school text than a thorough-going piece of theatre.”
One of the interesting subtleties I found in Shapiro’s production was the sympathetic portrayal of ‘Curly’s wife’, a deeply unhappy female marooned in a fiercely male world. Curly’s wife was inevitably perceived by the men as the wicked harlot, the ‘tart’ out to ensnare them and cause them mortal harm. But I think Calder seriously misses the point when he says of Leighton Meester who plays Curly’s wife:
“Meester is sassy and childish when she needs to be dangerous.”
Does that mean Calder thinks she ought to be a more stereotypical seductress to justify male fear, excitement and loathing? Shapiro makes Curly’s wife young, beautiful naïve and vulnerable. The play shows she too is the victim of her childhood background and loveless marriage to the creep, Curly. She too, is desperately lacking connection and primarily pines for human contact. Steinbeck was showing that the pain of gender exclusion prevailed as well as racial segregation and male isolation.
Don’t let Calder’s patronising judgement of ‘staid’ put you off this extraordinary live theatre experience.