Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is revived with a contemporary urgency this month in a co-production from Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Nottingham Playhouse, Royal & Derngate Northampton and West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Based on the famous 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath is set against the Great Depression and charts the agonising journey of a family escaping from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to the fertile land of California. It is a complex story of dignity, wealth and mobility and exists as a prescient critique on the nature of human coexistence.
Frank Galati’s colourful adaptation runs just over two-and-a half-hours, efficiently distilling Steinbeck’s wandering masterpiece into a forceful, compelling drama. Dialogue is naturalistic and conversational with a documentary-like realism, characterising a cast of over a dozen with texture and depth. The journey itself is vividly illustrated in the writing, ensuring a strong sense of space, time and place is evoked through dialogue alone.
Abbey Wright directs with urgency and an imaginative use of simplistic sets; a pair of moving gauzed platforms provide interior spaces and present shade and height. A raised area also doubles as staging for a band, often underscoring the piece with drums, strings and bass. Matt Regan’s musical direction provides a lilting sense of movement and montage to the play, bridging the family’s journey with an almost filmic soundtrack befitting counterculture cinema such as Easy Rider.
Performances are wide-ranging. Standouts include Brendan Charleson as weathered preacher Casey. Andre Squire is particularly robust and engaging as Tom. The crucial role of Ma – the embodiment of motherly love – is perfectly captured by Julia Swift in a heartbreaking study of resilient bravery and concealed fragility. Some accents wander away from a Southern Central drawl, but on the whole the vocal landscape is convincing.
The production also includes a cast of community performers, extending the scope with a contemporary feel. Costumed in late 20th Century designs which include tracksuits and shellsuits, the evocation of Eastern block immigration is unsubtly evident. In a disconcerting piece of direction, a member of the ensemble spends a good quarter of an hour staring directly into the audience with a damning curiosity for her passive observers. It is a questioning look which asks the audience if they recognise similarities in the play to the sociopolitical conflict of the present day.
A show which sets out to alert its audience with flashes of unexpected nudity and a graphic, uncensored depiction of a stillbirth, The Grapes of Wrath is a bold and inventive take on a very important story. Whilst it doesn’t all work perfectly, the intention to bring a story from the past into a potent present is interesting and inquiring. Exploring themes of social mobility, fertility and the cycle of life, The Grapes of Wrath remains a timeless study which is as alarming and damning today as it was eighty years ago and this version is well-deserving of its celebrated title.
Cast: Brendan Charleson, Julia Swift, Andre Squire, Jim Kitson, Ben Bland, Daniel Booroff, Charlie Folorunsho, Shiv Jalota, Molly Logan, Pamela Merrick, Harry Napier, Alex Newland, Heronimo Sehmi. Director: Abbey Wright Writer: John Steinbeck adapted by Frank Galati Theatre: West Yorkshire Playhouse Duration: 205 minutes Dates: Wednesday 24th May – Saturday 10th June 2017.