Review of ‘Of Mice and Men’:”To move, you need to hurt”

Jon Steinbeck’s literary classic relives on the British stage through this new adaptation directed by Iqbal Khan. Guillermo Nazara shares his thoughts on this world-premiered production playing at Birmingham’s Rep until next month, to let us know more about a show where death and compassion stand for the same thing.

I stopped explaining myself when I realized people only understand from their level of perception. Steinbeck did not coin those words when preparing his candidate to the Great American novel, but the essence of such valuable lesson might as well be the force that moves its entire plot. Based on his own experience working in a Midwest farm during his youth (some of its most gruesome details surprisingly toned down from the even more gruesome real ones), his rough depiction of both social and inner struggles has been subject of praise and censorship around the world – an uneven fate that however solidifies its eligibility for high art.

Throughout the almost one hundred years of the piece’s lifespan, the attempts of making it jump off the page have been numerous to say the least – its own style (once termed by critics as play-novelette) making it easier for creatives to swallow the bait of bringing it to the stage or screen. But the challenges are far from hidden (let alone prevented) by its theatrically sculpted facade, as the work’s complexity both in form and depth makes it difficult for any adapter to transport the roughness of its universe to the eyes and hearts of who may be watching.

Iqbal Khan’s direction shows a rational understanding of the material: the strife of racial discrimination, the miserable conditions of the turn-of-the century working class and mankind’s latent but eventually explosive need to break away from any chains. But despite the philosophical value of the story been kept on the performance, the original piece’s extraordinary knack to bond with its audience seems to be absent in this version, as the faithfulness of the play’s script does not translate, however, into its ability to boost the feelings of care and solidarity to the characters’ plight – something the novel almost managed to project almost effortlessly.

Featuring set by Ciaran Bagnall, the overall aesthetics create a proper atmosphere mixing the gloom of the plot’s bottom line with a more concrete recreation of the countryside life, but the dynamics between transitions fail to provide the seamless, cohesive look they usually require – some of them appearing too long or, in the worst case, pretty much unjustified. The lighting design (credit to the same creative) is by far one of the best traits of the production, but though it encapsulates the general tone of the tale superbly, it does not narrate as much as it is desired when it comes to the characters’ evolution.

As for the cast, some of its members are entitled to some praise, one of the most prominent ones coming from Lee Ravitz’s astoundingly touching portrayal of the old man Candy, exuding naturality to such an exquisite level that it’s difficult not to sympathize with. At the same time, Tom McCall, in the lead role of George, gives quite a satisfying performance that improves both in delivery and intricacy as the show moves forward. Sadly, some other renditions do not live up to the same standards, as William Young’s depiction of the mentally impaired but good-hearted Lennie lacks the edginess and crudeness the part is really all about.

Steinback’s signature thoughtfulness keeps living through this adaptation of his acclaimed piece, but a straight-jacket seems to have been put every time his sensitivity wants to shout out loud. The production is still worthy of a watch, as several moments continue to make the author’s sparkling allure hover around for some minutes, but changes are indispensable to make the whole thing work. Give it the soul it’s been estranged from and the masterpiece will return.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Of Mice and Men plays at the Birmingham Rep until 8 April. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Nazara

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