The same week which saw the death of Burgess Meredith, whose greatest screen roles included that of George in Lewis Milestone's film of John Steinbeck's Of Mice And Men, also witnessed the opening of Ian Brown's revival of Steinbeck's own stage adaptation.
One of Brown's strengths as a director is his fine ear for the tone of a piece, and his refusal to force the pace at which it unfolds; he imposes no fake dynamics for the sake of "variation". From the visually arresting opening moment of his production – in which designer Robin Don's big-sky canopy rises to reveal itinerant workers George and Lennie seemingly almost on the horizon – it is clear that this is not an evening of action so much as of interaction, of hopes, dreams and histories.
I have seen Martin Marquez in several roles during the past eighteen months, and on each occasion he has been unrecognisable from his previous outing; in this case, the dapper, smiling Lothario of Toby Jones's Don Juan – also in Leeds, scant weeks ago – has transformed utterly into the dusty, prematurely grizzled George. Marquez plays George's protective instinct toward Lennie perfectly, by not "playing" it actively at all; since George himself either will not or cannot explain their relationship, our perception of it is as a thing skirted around and described largely by significant silences. Tim Perrin's Lennie is a shambling gentle giant, at least in terms of spirit. Lennie is never seen as a violent man; even when goaded beyond endurance by the belligerent Curly, he cannot rhow a punch, but overcomes his opponent through almost inadvertent clutching, grasping and crushing.
The population of the ranch on which George and Lennie find work are likewise allowed to find their individual temperamental forms, with the possible exception of Tamzin Malleson as Curly's wife: Steinbeck built the character up for the stage, but she remains principally a device whose main function is to look alluring to the men in general, and strokable to Lennie in particular. Malleson is also marked out here by her accent, which is noticeably more Texan than the far-western drawls employed by those around her – indeed, under Jill McCullough's dialect tutelage, there are moments (and I say this as a compliment) when surtitles would not go amiss.
Mic Pool's crisp sound design lends a hyperreal edge to proceedings, but as the evening progresses, the amount of care lavished on incidental background noises becomes almost comical – throughout the scene in Crooks the blacksmith's room, for instance, we can hear with crystalline clarity the sound of horses munching hay offstage. But if this is the only gripe that can be found, Brown and his comrades have clearly done a fine job, and they have done it primarily by letting Steinbeck's characters speak – and hold their tongues – for themselves.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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