Steinbeck story that resonates across time and place

Of Mice And Men in rehearsal
Of Mice And Men in rehearsal
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John Steinbeck’s classic Of Mice and Men opens tonight at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Nick Ahad spoke to director Mark Rosenblatt.

It is one of the truly great American stories. On the face of it, an exploration of a true friendship, what that means and what people will do for a true friend. Look beneath the surface of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and you see the American Dream turned sour in miniature.

It is vast, sweeping and it deals with a story that is at once so intimate and yet so huge that it has more than stood the test of time and continues to be studied and enjoyed by readers almost 80-years after it was first published.

How can such a story be contained within a stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse?

The man hoping to answer that question is the theatre’s not-long appointed associate director Mark Rosenblatt.

Heading up his first show at the Playhouse, Rosenblatt has taken on an epic piece of work in the theatre’s spring season. “It’s Grapes of Wrath, distilled,” says Rosenblatt.

“He has distilled a whole movement and moment in time and told the story through this small friendship.”

Published in 1937, Steinbeck’s novella was inspired by the author’s experiences of working on ranches in the 1920s, where he encountered migrant workers and a harshness of living that went on to define his work.

The first stage production was written by Steinbeck and directed by George S Kaufman, opening on Broadway in 1937, within a month of the novella being published. It tells the story of George and Lennie, itinerant workers, travelling from place to place picking up idle work, hoping to save enough money to buy their own piece of the American dream.

When he joined the theatre, appointed last year by artistic director James Brining, Rosenblatt had already been earmarked to direct the play, but at the time did not know Steinbeck’s book.

“When I arrived James had already bagged the rights to stage the show and the plan was for me to direct it this spring,” says Rosenblatt.

“I’d never read it – I was aware of the book, and sort of knew some of the story, but I didn’t know how it ended. I think ultimately that became a bit of an advantage. Many people will come and see this production and it will be the first time they encounter the story – in the same way that I encountered it for the first time recently, which I think gives you a different perspective on it than if you have already known the story and then come back to it now.”

Discovering the achingly beautiful and powerful story has been, Rosenblatt says, a great gift. As the story remains on the school curriculum, there are many young people who will be going on a similar voyage of discovery, looking at how deep a friendship will go and how far in extremis a person has to be to make an ultimate sacrifice.

When he arrived at the Leeds theatre, Brining talked about finding plays that were relevant directly to the people of the city and the county. While Of Mice and Men is a great story, you have to wonder at the relevance of a story so rooted in America, which will be brought to life with the help of the avant-Americana music of Heather Christian. “It’s about finding the best stories, the best plays, and bringing them to this audience in Leeds,” says Rosenblatt. “If we didn’t do the play now, someone else would. I’m also incredibly lucky to be putting this play on the stage of the Quarry theatre. It’s an enormous space and is perfect to hold this story of these two men travelling across the epic landscape of America. You have to take advantage of the fact that the story is of these men moving from job to job, walking vast distances – and that is something we have the ability to show on a stage like the Quarry.”

The play is about to receive a new revival on Broadway, starring Hollywood actor James Franco and Irishman Chris O’Dowd. It seems there is something in the air, bringing this story back to the stage. “On the face of it, there might not be a lot to link this story to people living in Britain today, but it is the story of the Great Depression,” says Rosenblatt. “When you look at the fact that we are in one of the deepest recessions in many years, at the fact that we have people trying to campaign against zero hour contracts, that people are desperate for work – I think there are a lot of resonances in this story to people and their lives today.”

For Rosenblatt, it is a big moment – the first play he has directed in his role as Playhouse associate. “There is a lot of pressure, but in a way the play lets me off – by just being so brilliant.”

Of Mice and Men, West Yorkshire Playhouse to March 29. Tickets 0113 213 7700.