Review: “The Grapes of Wrath” starring Sorcha Cusack and Damian O’Hare

Sorcha Cusack as Ma JoadApart from “I love you”, perhaps the most dangerous statement in the English language is “Things couldn’t get worse”. In my experience, uttering this phrase is an invitation for evil to arrive. Indeed, I have wondered if the present Prime Minister has said it more than a few times. Faced with a teetering economy, he might have let fly with a “things couldn’t get worse”: then Northern Rock collapsed. Perhaps after having (sort of) cleared up that mess, he then may have tried to comfort himself with a “well, at least things couldn’t get worse”. Presumably this was followed by the financial obliteration of Halifax Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland plus the massive bailouts this entailed. If my assumption is correct, then perhaps his advisors would be well advised to grab a parcel full of duct tape and proceed to seal their master’s mouth shut, lest his curse strike again.

The point being, things can always be worse than what they are. Yes, increasing unemployment is a terrible blight which is afflicting most of the Western world: this morning the BBC showed a film of jobless individuals in New York, waiting in an office to collect a welfare cheque. The sheer hopelessness in their eyes suggests that this is not a recession which affects mainly the shiftless, rather, it is harming the productive and ambitious, who now have no means to contribute their efforts to the nation’s revival nor to better themselves.

However, it could be worse. Whether by coincidence or luck, the Chichester Festival Theatre has been running a series of plays which inform the audience of times which were much more harrowing and precarious; for example, a new play entitled “The House of Special Purpose” has been running for much of the summer. This tells the tale of the last days of the Russian Royal Family before they were killed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. The confined atmosphere of the aforementioned “house” within which the royals were detained, is made all the more poignant by the use of a small stage. While there are oddities, such as the Princess Anastasia awkwardly gliding around the set on roller skates, the play is able to convey the impression of a country in a state of violent collapse. Things are bad at the moment, but at least they’re not that awful.

Additionally, the management of the Chichester Festival Theatre decided to run a production of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”. Before continuing, I should mention that I have a special relationship with this particular novel: as a teenager, I read Steinbeck out of my own interest. I was perplexed as to why his novels were not part of the curriculum and made my teachers aware of my frustration. “The Grapes of Wrath” was my particular favourite, largely because it elevated the Depression and the Dust Bowl out of the dry pages of history and into living emotion; a dog eared copy was at the bottom of my school backpack, often thumbed through the dull moments which seemed to plague my teenage years. So it was with an affectionate heart that I booked my ticket and it was with a critical eye with which I viewed the play. Was this particular production going to live up to the high standards set by the author?

The most important element, in my opinion, was going to be its realism. Steinbeck had first hand experience of the Dust Bowl refugees which arrived in California: he saw how bedraggled yet hopeful they were, and how their dreams were shattered upon seeing the reality of California in contrast to the promises of it being a “golden state”. The audience needs to have hope and despair churned up from the very beginning, in which a freshly paroled Tom Joad (portrayed by Damian O’Hare) is making his way home to his parents’ farm.

It’s difficult for a stage to convey hot, dry weather, but the Chichester Festival Theatre does its best with rough hewn floor boards on the stage and harsh orange lights. The actors do their bit as well, making gestures and wiping of foreheads speak of intense heat. However, the production ran into its first difficulty once the actors began to speak. That said, it may be a problem only for an American: it was very clear the actors are British and trying to speak in an accent which is not natural to them. As a result, they sound more South than South West, more Tennessee than Oklahoma. Fortunately, however, they were able to push through this barrier and make the narrative flow.

Innovative touches also helped; it was clear that a lot of time and effort was put into the Joads’ car, for example. It was a rusted heap of a jalopy: sound and lights were used appropriately to suggest movement as the family makes the trek to California. Other successful ideas included the use of “projected” billboards: a screen at the top of the stage displayed ads for everything from Chevrolet to the American way of life. Also, the use of a barbershop quartet added a bit of light relief, particularly when the crooners sang a ballad of car salesmen who were trying to unload the lemon that eventually became the Joads’ main form of transportation.

However, perhaps the most extravagant prop was water: at the edge of the stage, there was a small, narrow pool which came in handy when the actors needed to portray swimming in the Colorado River or trying to damn a creek which had burst its banks. This was supplemented by the rain which flowed in a torrent from the ceiling.

These effects are very successful in portraying a world which is harsh, overly commercial and relentless. “The Grapes of Wrath”, in essence, is about how a family is destroyed by this environment: family members die en route, some leave of their own volition, others, like Tom Joad, are forced to run away from the law. But what makes this production a success is not the special effects, nor is it even the acting of many of the characters: its core comes from the character of Ma Joad, portrayed by Sorcha Cusack. It is commonplace to regard Tom Joad as the main hero of “The Grapes of Wrath”; indeed, Bruce Springsteen produced a tribute album entitled “The Ghost of Tom Joad”. It may very well be that this impression was entrenched in the public imagination by Henry Fonda’s sensitive performance as the character in the feature film and his famous speech therein about how we are all vessels of a collective soul. However, in the play, it is Ma Joad who gives the story its soul: she is the one who is ever hopeful, ever purposeful and even when the play reaches its desperate climax and finale, it is she who adds poignancy. The demands of this role are so great they that could wither many actresses, however Ms. Cusak rose to the challenge with grace. It is also worth mentioning that her Oklahoma accent is by far and away the most believable; when she delivered a short monologue towards the end about how men are “jerked” by events and women see the world continuing in spite of what troubles may come, it was perhaps the most moving moment in the play. It may be at that point that the sense of “things could be worse” was most palpable for the spectators: unemployed as no doubt some the audience were, and perhaps lacking in hope, at least we were sitting in a theatre on a comfortable August evening. Our crops had not blown away in the dust, nor had we chased after pipe dreams to a distant place and ended up living in railway box cars, suffering from starvation. We were inside, we were well fed, we were dry. Ma Joad was right, the world continued on and to a better place. But “The Grapes of Wrath” is a success because it invites us to look back: it’s not a perfect production, however, it does open the window on a world which we have thankfully left behind. One can’t emerge from it without feeling blessed; if indeed the planners of Chichester Festival Theatre happened to choose this play for this season out of mere luck, then one can only hope their fortunes continue to hold, and their presently faultless sense of the times in which we live will compel them next year to choose productions which reflect lighter, happier days.

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