The shock of the familiar

17th October 2003 at 01:00
Heather Neill looks at Steinbeck on stage and on page

OF MICE AND MEN. By John Steinbeck. Torch Theatre, Milford Haven.

Director Peter Doran and his cast of nine are using Steinbeck's own version of his novel, but, he says, "We are constantly going back to the book".

The story of the gentle friendship between California ranch-hand drifters Lennie (who is enormously strong physically but childlike) and his smaller, brighter friend George, is doomed to end tragically.

Lennie innocently pets small creatures to death with his spade-like hands and offers a similar dangerous love to children and women. George gets him out of trouble until at last, against the explosive background of a competitive all-male bunk-house where the the only woman in the story, the wife of one of the men, behaves provocatively and is accidentally killed, he can do nothing but shoot his friend. This is a shocking scene but full of love. It is the last act of friendship.

Doran says: "There are hints all the way through, but the end is still a shock. Even if people know the ending, they will get sucked into the story.

"We are told very little of the men's history, why they are together, but they need each other; the dependence isn't one-way. Steinbeck clearly sympathises with their plight.

"They are in a social set-up where they couldn't easily cross borders. They are poor workers and that is their lot. Their dream of getting a piece of land of their own one day is no more than fantasy."

The ideal of family life is always just out of reach. Curley's wife represents the distruptiveness and temptation of women to lone men, but she has none of the qualities of a home-maker. Her portrayal is hard for a modern audience (and the actress playing her) to take.

"It is difficult", admits Doran, "and our putting back from the book her tirade against Negroes doesn't make it any easier, but we felt Steinbeck had left that out because it was considered unacceptable. Now it seems like history."

He claims to find some sympathy for her, because she is forced into her role to some extent. "Ultimately the story is about friendship and she has no one to talk to."

Tel: 01646 695267. Until November 1. Education pack and workshops available: 01646 694192. A different, touring, production is at the Savoy Theatre, London, until December 6Tel: 020 7836 8888

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