Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Grapes of Wrath, Chichester Festival Theatre

Chichester seems to have twinned itself with Oklahoma this summer. Joining in repertory Rodgers and Hammerstein’s optimistic eponymous 1944 musical about the state in which “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye” comes the alternative version, an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, where the corn disappears in a windstorm and the small farmers in desperation seek a new life as migrant workers in California. For the Joad family, forced off their land, it is one damn thing after another as they pile their sparse possessions into a decrepit buggy and head west. They are plagued by deaths and desertions, heat and hostility, but it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive and when they reach California their problems really start. Director Jonathan Church has wisely used Frank Galati’s award-winning 1990 adaptation that stays faithful in word and spirit to Steinbeck’s campaigning novel. He smoothly surmounts the obvious challenges: a bare sloped stage neatly sets off the dangers of the journey; clever lighting conveys blistering heat; the old banger moves on cue; the waters of the Colorado river emerge, giving the weary actors the chance to refresh themselves and the front rows. Church is less successful with the large cast, some of whom have yet to settle comfortably into the skins and accents of the hard-pressed Okies, all of whom, good and bad, are victims of the System. Fortunately, Sorcha Cusack as Ma Joad holds the family and the play together with steely stoicism, and Oliver Cotton as Cary the preacher (who has replaced faith in God with faith in his fellow men) conveys Steinbeck’s socialist vision with strength and sympathy. Christopher Timothy is rather faceless as Pa Joad and Damian O’Hare as Tom, the honest murderer who picks up the preacher’s burden, is not always distinct. Great novels rarely make great plays but this production does more than enough to confirm that this adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath is a (dated) masterpiece. The characters are inevitably one-dimensional but Steinbeck’s humanity hits home, and the celebrated climax manages to suggest there is a glimmer of hope for mankind.

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