AU ABROAD

the AU Interview: Director Iain Sinclair discusses his latest adaption of stage play “Of Mice and Men” (now showing at the Seymour Centre)

Of Mice and Men is one of the world’s most compelling tales of friendship and survival. Now the much loved stage production is showing at the Seymour Centre as part of the Reginald Season until the 25th July. The AU caught up with Director Iain Sinclair about how he breathes new life into the original stage adaption and the important messages of the text.

OF MICE AND MEN is one of the most recognisable pieces of literature. How do you approach breathing new life into the production whilst staying true to the original stage adaptation and novella?

Steinbeck writes with a great sense of stagecraft. Even his novels have a great sense of dramatic clarity. They burst into reality as you read them. Our first port of call in the first half of rehearsals was to study Steinbeck’s gestural offers very closely and get them working right before clomping all over his elegantly lean prose with our own big ideas. He runs a very tight ship and doesn’t take much for contemporary life to come pouring into Of Mice and Men, it was written as an act of acknowledgement and respect for the tough lot that migrants endured, the constant assaults on their dreams the systematic dehumanising from above, the suspicion and antipathy people feel for them feels alarmingly close when we look at our own contemporary attitude toward migrant workers.

You also work as a dramaturg. How does that help shape your work as a Director?

It’s always a humbling experience working on text encoded by a master like John Steinbeck. My best learning experiences in dramaturgy have come from unpacking and restaging masterpieces. We have a lot to learn from our Masters. When I worked on Our Town at The Opera House a few years ago it felt at times like I had the reassuring hand of Thornton Wilder on my shoulder when it came to the really tough decisions. I learned from that experience to temper the interventionist directorial urge with a broader more playwright focussed attention to text, especially when working with a master. We always have a lot to learn from our masters – Steinbeck has extraordinary narrative efficiency its humbling to unpack the amount of complexity of emotional terrain, journalistic observation and fierce social commentary that Steinbeck can pack into a single gesture. The small talk as the men wait for Carlson to shoot Candy’s beloved dog, George’s heartbreaking vigilance looking after Lennie, Curley’s one hand in a glove full of Vaseline. He’s one of those rare writers who can tell giant stories with complex philosophy in with simple efficient eloquence.

How do you bring the rather despairing era of the Great Depression to life on stage?

The other night I found a documentary on Netflix called The Overnighters by Jesse Moss. The documentary is about men from all over the US converging on North Dakota hoping to get a slice of the new oilfield riches, the burb said this: “Broken, desperate men chase their dreams and run from their demons in the North Dakota oil fields. A local Pastor risks everything to help them.” This is a real thing happening right now.

As I watched it I was struck by just how true Steinbeck was to the voice and spirit of lonely, displaced migrant workers. The circumstances in The Overnighters are virtually identical to what Steinbeck documented in Southern California in the 1930s. Millions of people in this predicament are wandering the globe right now, hunting for any kind of work “just to get a stake” as George puts it. Of Mice and Men documents a relentless stripping back of dignity brought on by dire economic circumstances, I suspect that it would be foolhardy to attach too many extra bells and whistles to such a lean piece of storytelling.

What do you think is the most important message within OF MICE AND MEN and how relevant are these messages still within today’s society?

Beware the ravages of austerity. Slim the Jerk Line Skinner puts its best: “It seems like everybody in the whole damn work is scared of each other … it gets like they don’t even want to talk to each other … I’ve seen em turn mean.” Steinbeck draws fine portraits of a group of people lost in their own loneliness, some teetering on the cusp of turning mean and others already hardened and lost. My mind is drawn to our own rhetoric of economic austerity and our own response to people doing it tough. Have we allowed ourselves to become mean in the face of hardship? How do Australians treat our own migrants now? Do we have the tools to protect our souls from the ravages of unfiltered market forces?

Do you have a favourite line from the play/novel?

There are so many lines in Of Mice and Men that have deep impact – the trouble is that Steinbeck’s eloquence is so efficient that his quotes seem like plain sentences in isolation. If I may steal from his prologue instead: “In every bit of honest writing in the world, there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other”

And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from your new production?

A recognition that we define ourselves by our behaviour toward one another. That economic austerity invites mean-ness, mean-ness breeds isolation and isolation creates a universe of loneliness but that there is a way out. It is each other.

Bonus! Iain shares with us some of his director notes!

Like most of us I first encountered John Steinbeck at school. In one year I was also introduced to George Orwell, Arthur Miller and J.D Salinger and it set me on a path.

Steinbeck’s tough and deeply humane tale hooked me hard when I was 14 even though I was probably too young to appreciate the central mechanism of the novel. I had very few plans, they weren’t best laid and none of them had gone awry yet. At the time I was compelled by the deep friendship of Lennie and George, two men almost randomly thrown together yet so bound together that when they are pulled apart the whole universe of the story is destroyed. I remember sitting on my own bunk bed after finishing the book and something spent of its words, as if I could open it again and it would be just blank pages. As much as I was drawn by this extraordinary incongruous friendship I was also deeply moved by Steinbeck’s respectful and close portraiture of loneliness. I knew what loneliness was by then, sat on that bunk bed in a boarding school, my family in another country altogether I had just enough insight to appreciate Steinbeck’s lean eloquent and respectful genius of portraiture.

Revisiting this dearly loved childhood text now I’m struck by its adultness. I see Steinbeck’s close simple observation open up universes of human need. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, it’s true, as we get older we feel this deeper and darker. We reach for our dreams in a way that exposes us to the cruelty of only ever realising them briefly. It’s a cruel story but it makes you cling ever more tightly to the consolation of dreams.

When Slim says to George that it seems to him “maybe everybody in the whole damn world is scared of each other” I wonder how far we have evolved from the depression, when economic hardship made us fearful and untrusting of migrants, of how ‘tightening our belts’ impacts those most exposed to hardship and how economic austerity pulls us away from kindness and toward something less admirable.

Again Slim has the words for it: “I’ve seen ‘em get mean”.

I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of spirit that Sport for Jove injects into theatre and humbled by the depth of investment the actors have made in this production and very fortunate to have revisited a work that put me on the path I find myself on.

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Of Mice and Men will be showing at the Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, until the 25th July. For more information visit www.seymourcentre.com

Photographer credit: Marnya Rothe