31st March, 2017, matinee
I’m on a bit of a mission to see or read all of the Tony nominees for Best Play so I was pleased to see that Nottingham Playhouse have teamed up with Nuffield Southampton, Northampton’s Royal & Derngate and the West Yorkshire Playhouse to stage Frank Galati’s 1988 adaptation (Tony Award 1990) of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Nottingham has good form for novel adaptations having previously co-produced Robert Icke’s production of 1984 and the recent West End transfer of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Although I don’t know Steinbeck’s 1939 novel I was watching the play with an intense awareness that it was a novel adaptation with all of the difficulties and decisions that come with that. Inevitably the detail of the novel is reduced, bits have to be cut, others condensed. Looking at recent examples, it’s interesting to consider different methods: Simon Stephens has discussed listing the events in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time followed by copying the novel’s dialogue to form an initial rough draft of a play. Sally Cookson has similarly described lifting the dialogue from Jane Eyre but then allowing the actors to put it into their own words. Nick Dear has also talked about the difficulty of finding a language for Frankenstein, making Shelley’s language more accessible for actors but making it seem like the words could have been said in Shelley’s original setting. The playwright’s job, then, seems to be to stay true to the author’s impulse but to find a modern vernacular through which to express the work dramatically.
Novel adaptations bring out the best methods of working in contemporary theatre: collaboration and pushing the boundaries of what theatre can achieve. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Frankenstein and Jane Eyre – admittedly all NT productions with the resources and budgets afforded to a national theatre – have all become hallmarks of 21st century theatre. They embrace the new by reinventing old texts and finding new ways of making theatre. However, I can’t help but feel that Abbey Wright’s production is strangely restricted by Galati’s adaptation and/or original production (which he also directed with his company at Chicago’s Steppenwolf). Reading Frank Rich’s review of the New York opening, there are similarities between then and now: an opening tableau of a lone spotlight on someone playing the handsaw to create the pastoral sound that is similarly evoked by the flute at the start of Miller’s Death of a Salesman; both productions aim for a stripped back, muscular yet elegant aesthetic (here in Laura Hopkins’ multi-purpose steel framed design) rather than gaudy, sentimental patriotism; camp fires scatter the stage in both.
Novel adaptations also offer the challenge of how the stage production can do justice to the novelist’s imagination and ambition of scope. Not all have to have the technical razzmatazz of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein. Simple lighting, puppets, choreography and movement can bring the novel to life. The Grapes of Wrath offers a great opportunity for an inventive production. It follows the Joad family’s journey from the Oklahoma dust bowl in the Depression, where the land and opportunities are dry, to California where work (like the grapes) is plentiful. Yet at times, Wright’s production is disappointingly static. People have lost their spirit, even the preacher, in Oklahoma and they’ve fallen in love with the idea of green land and fruit trees and little white houses. Like with Shepard’s True West it’s easy to recognise the rose tinted California Steinbeck portrays and how it offers hope for the disheartened. On the way, the family and extended community meet natural disasters, people out to make a quick buck, violence and heartache. Galati also poetically points up that the mountains and rocky land look like ‘the bones of a country’, lacking in colour.
The production is impressively underscored by Matt Regan’s affecting and evocative music. He and his band achieve a sound which is distinctly American: it’s a touch folksy but it also has inspirations of rock and maybe the Blues. It is played over bits of narration (presumably parts of Steinbeck’s prose) which also help to place us in the planes of Route 66. Wright has also assembled a strong, diverse cast. André Squire conveys Tom Joad’s supressed anger, his determination to turn his life around, and his strong family ties. Branden Charleson nicely suggests the preacher’s tired sense of belief. Julia Swift stands out as Ma: with a few American 20th century classics under her belt, she excellently conveys the matriarch’s undying hope that California will offer more for her family. She and the company nicely articulate what Rich described as ‘the existence of an indigenous American spirit that resides in inarticulate ordinary people’.
What livens up the production is the inclusion of a community cast at each theatre. It’s a decision that reminds us of the currency that this play holds in promoting the importance of (comm)unity. Both Grampa and Granma die on the way to the West coast, the former as soon as he leaves the Dust Bowl, with another character remarking that the old man and the old land were one. Another member of the family also parts from the Joads, preferring to stay in Colorado(?). However, there remains a sense of unfailing hope even if act 2 shows California not offering all of its promises (there’s still violence, floods, a shortage of work and heartache). Galati tries to show a wide snapshot of Steinbeck’s different characters, but this makes for a slightly uneven play despite Wright’s balanced production. Indeed it seems odd how we start the play with one protagonist (Tom) and end with another, Rose of Sharon, who is seen in grief over her lost baby trying to breastfeed a man. Molly Logan’s portrayal is tender but it doesn’t make up for the character being reduced to merely a growing bump in act 1 (although this is more of the adaptation’s fault and not Logan’s).
There are a few striking lines in the script, making it a ripe time for reviving the play. Brexit has split the country in what is a politically divisive time. Galati’s script and Steinbeck’s novel presents us with a population of people who appear to be moving en masse for a better life. The resonance is galvanised when the Joads meet someone who is moving back the other way, unimpressed with what California had to offer. Although I haven’t been fully won over by this adaptation/production, The Grapes of Wrath offers a powerful reminder of how we can see timely resonances in a story that is so dislocated from our time and place.
The Grapes of Wrath plays at the Nottingham Playhouse until 8th April and then tours.
|The Company of The Grapes of Wrath. Credit: Marc Brennar|