There’s nothing I love more than a classic novel or play reinterpreted in a new way. I’m a sucker for unusual adaptations of Shakespeare and enjoy interesting uses of stage space.
So Nuffield Southampton Theatre’s new production of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath caught my attention when I first saw it popping up on my newsfeed a few months ago.
A text I studied way back at school, The Grapes of Wrath is encountered less often than Steinbeck’s other GCSE favourite, Of Mice and Men. Set in Oklahoma in the Great Depression of 1930s America, it tells the tale of the Joad family, who escape the Dust Bowl and migrate to California; seemingly a land of apparent plenty, full of peaches and oranges and hope. Determined to escape hardship for a brighter future, the family’s journey is littered with danger, even more deprivation and risk, with sadness and loss littered along their path.
It’s a tough story, and a heavy subject. Many will argue it is of even more significance now, with the news full of stories of migrants and refugees. It’s certainly a poignant tale to be told at this time, and I was keen to see what this interpretation would involve.
The play is adapted by Frank Galati and directed by Abbey Wright, who emphasises her connection between the story and current affairs:
“The Grapes of Wrath is uncannily relevant to the world we find ourselves in today. A world which is facing increasing mechanisation, displacement of people, division and economic and environmental crisis.” – Abbey Wright, Director
Would this play provoke me to stop and think about the world we live in now? Would it evoke enough emotion?
The stage itself was sparse, using just two large structures for all purposes; as transport, home and scenery. I thought that this was very effective; leaving it to the imagination of the audience to interpret and create the surroundings for the actors. In fact, the whole stage was used in a novel way; alongside these large ‘boxes’ being moved about, the stage floor even literally became a river, full of water – for me this was a wonderful surprise! I also loved the way that these structures were used to add another elevated ‘floor’ to the stage.
The live, original music by Matt Reagan was also a really fantastic part of the production in my eyes. The play is opened by music played on a saw, setting the scene perfectly and creating a really haunting sound. This is then later joined by guitars, drums and bass, with music littering the performance. I really enjoyed this element, and found it emotional and poignant.
The cast was brilliant and it is particularly worth noting the use of a community cast to add a little something extra to the play. It really brought home the message that Wright was trying to convey – the need for community, relationships and togetherness. The idea that refugees and migrants are just like you and I; ordinary people.
Around fifty (yes, fifty!) volunteers, a true mish-mash of different people from all across the Southampton area, represented the concept that everyone can be affected by conflict and hardship. It was also a brilliant way to ensure that the scale of the migration was fully represented on stage, instead of relying on our imaginations; it would have been hard to imagine the sheer number of people if presented with an empty stage.
Standout performances for me were from Julia Swift as Ma – who was a powerful, caring, strong and determined matriarch; managing both to be soothing and loving and also, at times, rather terrifying. In my opinion, she really held the whole show together. I also felt that Molly Logan as Rose of Sharon was superb, and Heronimo Sehmi’s Grampa added brilliant humour to the first half. Andre Squire’s Tom Joad and Brendan Charleson as Casy were also excellent.
I aim to keep my reviews 100% honest, and though I did very much enjoy the performance, honestly, I wasn’t completely blown away. I felt that, at three hours, it was a very, very long play, and with such a heavy subject matter, I did feel rather tired by the end. For me, the first half really stood out; some scenes in the second half, I felt, could have been a little shorter. Perhaps.
The other thing that confused me was the use of costumes. I was incredibly impressed with the majority of the outfits worn by the cast, especially in the first half Dust-covered overalls and dirty cotton dresses gave it the authentic 1930s America feel, and I loved it. However, as the play went on, there were more and more unusual items of clothing; tracksuits, slogan t-shirts, patterned leggings and even, at the end, a superhero outfit. Things you might find on your local high street.
This may have been intentional – perhaps the idea was to move the play more and more into modern-day with the ambiguous costumes; a plastic bag here, a pair of converse there. If that was intentional, it’s a clever way to lift the story from 1930’s America to modern-day Southampton, but there was almost something missing which meant it didn’t quite work and wasn’t obvious enough.
Also, did I mention nudity? Yes, there was nudity. Personally I thought this was a nice way to make the play honest, raw and close to the text, and it was done in a good, light-hearted way which added something to the play, but I know that some people in the audience weren’t quite expecting it (despite there being notices about it!)
Overall, I enjoyed my evening – the cast were excellent, the music and staging was great, but it was slightly too long and I wasn’t quite as gripped emotionally by the powerful scenes of heartache, sorrow and pain as I would have hoped. I am, however, glad I was able to go, as it brought back memories of reading the text and was lovely to see the local community getting stuck into theatre. The whole team is clearly enthusiastic, passionate and proud about what they have created.
Did you go and see Grapes of Wrath at Nuffield Southampton? I’d love to know your thoughts.
Grapes of Wrath will be at Nuffield Southampton Theatres until 25 March, before touring co-producing venues throughout 2017. It is a co-production by Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Nottingham Playhouse, Royal & Derngate, Northampton and West Yorkshire Playhouse.