A workers' tragedy

5th September 1997 at 01:00
In Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck's harsh tale of migrant agricultural workers in the American mid-West during the Depression, George survives while Lennie, the innocent who doesn't know his own strength, is doomed.

Ian Brown, directing the stage version in Leeds, says he wants young people to be caught up in his production. "Of Mice and Men makes teenage boys, big boys, cry . . . something to do with the sense of pessimism that you have at a certain age, where you are fascinated by the fact that life can be very grim," he says. "Here there is some kind of hope in the end - George gets a glimpse of what life can be like, but the play is still a tragedy."

Steinbeck's admired stage adaptation of his own novel will be treated with due respect but Brown and his actors have gone back to the novel to add a touch more detail, such as the black man Crooks being humiliated by the wife of Curley, the boss's son. She tells Crooks that she could have him strung up, emphasising the menacing colour prejudice of the times. The Christ-like character Slim, not usually seen in the stage climax, will be glimpsed, in the distance, comforting George.

Brown admires the nobility of the working men in the bunkhouse, even though they are having a hard time: "They show an appreciation for nature, they value friendship, they are certainly not without grace."

And he has a great deal of sympathy for Curley's wife, even though she is presented sketchily. Born on the wrong side of the tracks, she nevertheless has an air of innocence, even though men desire her. She mirrors the dream of George and Lennie.

"The dream that they describe is not so much the American Dream as a universal dream - it is a perfect little world where there are no worries and nature is there to serve human kind. It's a world without work. The best line, for me, in the play is: 'Suppose there was a carnival or a circus come to town, or a ballgame, or any damn thing, we'd just go to her'.

"The play's about freedom, and I suppose America is based on a sort of freedom, but if you achieve the American Dream you have no freedom; you have to keep working at it, you become a slave to money."

"Lennie dies with the dream in his eyes. I hadn't realised that until we tried the scene in rehearsal. George tells him to look ahead, to the farm in the distance, and gives him a happy death. A lot of people would like to do that for the person they love."

Of Mice and Men will be staged in the vast Quarry Theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, with a huge sky visible "We will be showing the smallness of human beings in the American landscape."

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