John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men is renowned for being on the syllabus of many English literature qualifications. Published in 1937, the text is set during the Great Depression in the US and focuses on the idolised idea of the American Dream. Throughout its history, the novella has been challenged and criticised for its racist themes, as well as – although not so regularly disputed – it’s ableist discrimination towards those who can achieve the optimum American life.
The story follows ranch workers George Milton and Lennie Small as they arrive at a new job, with a heavy theme of migration running throughout the text. George acts as Lennie’s caregiver as he is decided to be unable to look after himself; therefore, the narrative essentially pivots around George, who controls Lennie’s agency as well as his own. Although never officially diagnosed, Lennie is mentally impaired and has trouble with his memory as well as having a fascination with touching soft objects including small animals which he ultimately accidentally kills, and acts as his hamartia in the plot. Lennie is constantly described as “crazy” and “nuts”, whilst also being attributed with childlike and animalistic qualities – common tropes for disabled characters.
Guy Unsworth directs the production and does so in a very careful way. It is easy to use the scapegoat that as the text was written in 1937, it is a product of its time, and that everything should be taken with a pinch of salt as little was understood about neurodiversity in the early twentieth century. Unsworth recognises this and therefore treads lightly with a plot which is very dated by today’s standards towards disability, race, and women. To portray this in his production, Unsworth directs the attention of Lennie’s character to his child-likeness rather than the animalistic qualities so predominant in the original text. An interview with Unsworth in the programme states that for him the “important question is why George needs Lennie” rather than the other way around; and I truly believe that he intends to address this. Matthew Wynn who plays Lennie does so with a tasteful grace, as it is apparent that he knows that any outlandish portrayals of disability, as previously seen in other adaptations of the novella, will be offensive and incredibly inappropriate. However I think the dialogue is lost with George’s characterisation by Richard Keightley, as he remains in a middle ground of being sympathetic, but not sympathetic enough. Lennie is adapted and softened, but George is not done so in a way which makes you question why he needs his companion, instead he follows the text, but not in a particularly dynamic way. I fully appreciate what Unsworth has tried to do with this adaptation, but it just simply does not ring true for me.
It is difficult and contradictory to say that non-disabled actors should not be allowed to play disabled characters, but the question is: where do you draw the line? It is now commonly accepted that white actors should not adopt blackface, so why should a non-disabled actor be allowed to “crip-up”? The lack of representation for the disabled community in the arts is apparent, so I wonder what the correct course of action is. Clearly disabled actors should be presented with more opportunities to portray their own impairments. But where does this leave non-disabled actors portraying characters with an impairment which they can never fully comprehend? I refer back to my earlier comment that I believe this production attempts it with good taste, but fundamentally, Lennie is killed because of his impairment and that is the final resonating message at the end of the play. I appreciate that it is incredibly difficult to adapt a text with outdated views to the present day, and I standby that I think it has been directed as tactfully and compassionately as one could hope. I am just not convinced that it can be done so entirely.
Whilst this review has quickly become a disabled rights advocacy post, other elements of the production were outstanding. David Woodhead’s set design is stunning and is beautifully complimented by Bretta Gerecke’s lighting design. The two work harmoniously throughout the production to create a spectacular atmosphere for each scene. Meanwhile, Harry Egan steals the show in every appearance as ranch-hand Whit – a small character emphasised to the utmost with every passing second. Rosemary Boyle’s character Curley’s Wife brings a refreshing zeal to the only female character – who is not even dignified with a name. She recognises her angst and loneliness in a way which provokes and challenges the misogynistic themes of the original text.
In summary, I have debated back and forth over this production, and I declare that while it tries to remain tasteful and appropriate, I am not sure it can do so entirely. However, this production features some theatrically impressive moments, some fabulous lighting and set design, and some well-formed modernised characterisations.
Of Mice and Men begins its UK Tour at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury and continues touring to Northampton, Mold, Glasgow, Salisbury, Brighton, Wimbledon, Tumbridge Wells, Manchester, and Swansea.