>of mice and men by I Theatre

>reviewed by marcus tan

>date: 20 feb 2002
>time: 2.30pm
>venue: the drama centre
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

 

                           
>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.
 

>>>>>BEING AND (BE)LONGING

Directed by Brian Seward and adapted for the stage by Roger Parsley, this classic novel by John Steinbeck takes on neoteric dimensions as it gets transferred from page to stage, exemplifying the power of drama to stir and inspire.

Set in 1930s America, a time of overcast gloom spawned from the Great Depression, Steinbeck's tale tells of two pilgrims' progress. Bound by a unique and symbiotic friendship, Lennie and George wander the plains in search of work as labourers. Their search, magnified, is an allegory for the search of all mankind: a search for the transcendental signified; a search for being and belonging; a search for the never-never land called 'home' - "We have a dream. Someday we'll have a little home and a couple of acres. A place to call home." This chant becomes a motif that resounds both verbally and psychologically, accentuating the painful condition of dislocation and displacement that is an endemic condition in modernity.

Through their interactions with a host of other characters on buck-barley, we encounter more disenfranchised lower- (literally and metaphorically) class Southern folks. Both novel and play, then, thematise a universal condition of alienation and estrangement engendered by the advent of Industrialism - a dislocation from the land, that signifier of identity and belonging.

>>'The performance possessed sufficient emotional and literary depth… The disarticulation of Steinbeck's characters dramatised becomes a powerful remark on the condition of humanity in modernity.'

The simplistic plot of the novella becomes richly textured on the stage because of the actors' ability in bringing forth the breadth of emotions embedded in the story. Although many of the actors took a good half the play to get into character, the portrayals of George, Lennie, and Curley's unnamed wife were exceptionally credible. Juwanda Hassim should be commended for his commanding performance playing the mentally challenged Lennie, a character who garners sympathy because of his inability to reconcile a god-given Herculean strength with his absolute child-like innocence. One can here readily see an inter-textual parallel between John Coffee of Stephen King's 'The Green Mile' and Steinback's Lennie. Lennie's conscience and sole religion is George. George is Lennie's senses, ego and superego. And although Australian actor Paul Falzon manages to evoke the essentiality that is George, one cannot but feel that the extreme attitudes that George adopts towards Lennie in Steinbeck's novel are not present in this production. Like the super-ego, George is a harsh punisher, but he is also an affectionate and loving friend, often straddling both polarities. In the final act of mercy killing, the extremes are bridged with the treading of a middle path - George kills Lennie out of love. The sound of the gunshot against a background of silence and the sudden blackout on stage created what was among the most powerful and poignant scenes in the play.

Like all texts put on stage, the problems of authenticity and departure from the text are evident. Unlike Steinbeck, Parsley has chosen (I believe) to complicate the friendship between Lennie and George further by begetting a homosexual sub-text. The close bond between Lennie and George is constantly que(e)ried by those that they meet. Although they are never very explicit, suggestive implications arise, and the subtleties of this undercurrent were rather effectively played out on stage through the actors' (re)actions to the dialogue, so that Lennie's ignorance and complete lack of self-awareness and George's skilful evasion of the issue yielded doubts in an attentive audience. But this agenda, be it present in the dramatic text or not, was never unnecessarily accentuated (as some other local productions are wont to do).

The authentic costumes and the barnyard sets all served to create a relatively believable re-creation of Steinbeck's countryside setting. The dim lighting was effective in helping to produce the dark overtones of the story, although it could have been employed more effectively if it had been able to register fluctuations in mood. What perhaps was the highlight of all other semiotic texts on stage was the use of music. The interesting inclusion of live music by the Universal Blues Brothers assisted in recreating the 'Down-South' atmosphere that is essential to the play. Their presence on the stage, performing these authentic tunes (songs accompanied by guitar and harmonica), helped exemplify the ways in which music is an integral aspect of performance because of its ability to create and localise context.

Eventually, what is most crucial in performance is the actors' ability to become the characters for that brief moment. Accent is often a challenging and volatile aspect in the portrayal of character. Parsley's stage adaptation requires actors capable of good Southern accents (since much of the play's action is dialogue-driven) so as to help evoke the essences of Steinbeck's characters. Most of the cast found extreme difficulty in sustaining this most challenging of accents, constantly slipping and sliding into (and out of) local accents. While Paul Falzon and Kate Naughton were seemingly more comfortable and had less difficulty, Slim, played by Harris Jahim, made a valiant but failed attempt, and what resulted was a somewhat painful aural struggle to fathom the character's speech. The other actors, such as Hassim (Lennie) and Ferlin (Crooks) settled for a compromise that was neither Southern nor local, but sufficient, as it did not come across as a pretentious attempt at mimicry.

The play is very much about various forms of prejudice, including class distinction and racism, but the latter of these was somewhat complicated by the meta-dramatics of staging. Crooks is a disenfranchised, disillusioned and disenchanted 'nigger' who spends most of his life reading. Despite being highly intelligent, he is alienated from society because of his skin-colour. The element of racism was undermined in the staging because several of the actors were non-whites (only Curley's wife and George were). The diversity of ethnicity on stage made the radical segregation of Crook problematic: on stage, the audience saw a 'coloured' guy dealing with another 'coloured' guy.

That much said, the performance possessed sufficient emotional and literary depth to make the engines of attentive minds work. The disarticulation of Steinbeck's characters dramatised becomes a powerful remark on the condition of humanity in modernity.