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Review: The Grapes of Wrath at The New Theatre

By James Ong

The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, itself won playwright and director Frank Galati the Tony Award for Best Play in 1990. These hefty directorial shoes are stepped in to by a commanding and focused Louise Fischer, Artistic Director of New Theatre, who took on the ambitious task of reviving a piece that, though commonly known, has faded in the eyes of modern Australian audiences. I feel a safety in numbers when admitting that I had never read or watched any version of Steinbeck’s seminal novel, nor had I any inclination to. That being said, the name carries a weight to it that imbues respect for a ‘classic’.

In the play, we follow the Joad family, as they come to the realisation that their once fertile and thriving farm in Oklahoma is now barren and unfruitful due to harsh droughts and dust storms. This forces them to head West in the hopes of finding employment and a home in the promising land of California. Over this trip we come to realise that they are but one of several thousand families making a doomed pilgrimage to a state that only offers a different kind of abuse and emptiness. Steinbeck clearly didn’t shy away from expressing his mistrust of Capitalism gone wild and praising the rough-and-tumble farm workers with which he felt akin. His characters are quite religiously influenced and find the charm in rituals that are less civilised to us 2019 Newtown folk. Though this edge is softened in the New Theatre edition, the DNA is present.

The scale of these themes being bandied about was reflected by the scale of the production, with a semi-dramatic, semi-musical cast of twenty filling the stage with the life and vigour of a storybook rural village. This immense cast was surrounded by a flexible set (designed by Tom Bannerman) that keenly balanced realism and theatricality to convey both the expanse of the South-East United States as well as the crowded and claustrophobic spaces of 1930s work camps. These were complemented nicely by tasteful lighting and sound design (Christina Hatzis and David Cashman respectively). An unfortunate consequence of following the original text with an authentic brush, is the lack of diversity on stage. The period piece in question doesn’t lend itself very well to ethnic representation so the caucasity is understandable, but still noticeable.

From the first words spoken, I was astounded by just how comfortable, natural and consistent the entire cast’s Oklahoma drawl was, with each performer imbuing their range of characters with robust and convincing personality. Matthew Abotomey’s Tom Joad anchored the piece with an understated, but engaging performance as the focal member of the family. Abotomey intelligently navigated the often repetitive and wordy script with a conviction and maturity that elevated a character that is hard to make unique. William Baltyn’s ex-pastor Jim Casy was also a consistently affecting presence, with an alluring and fascinating charisma. His attempts to escape the shackles of his previously-pious life rang true with guilt and self-deprecation. Simon Emmerson shone as the stoic, yet tender Noah Joad and Peter David Allison’s several characters boomed with by far my favourite voice work of this already stellar piece.

Alexis Worthing (SM) and Shayne de Groot (ASM *and* performer) wrangled costume changes, musical instruments, shifting set-pieces, a ludicrous volume of props, quick makeup effects and water effects, on top of the twenty actors themselves (two of which are children) and they are worthy of a standing ovation for their performance. The (almost) unbelievable smoothness with which it was achieved was a remarkable feat.

This seminal 1930s story occupies a strange space in today’s storytelling; new enough to be able to draw the through lines to today, but old enough not to be tied to any present generations. It’s very clear that this is a period piece, but the parallels to the climate crisis and ever increasing gap between the white and blue collars in our day are precise and notable. Our society’s nature creates roadblocks and mountains for those who have the least and the ambition for more is often left at just an ambition.

This 1939 Steinbeck, via 1988 Galati, via 2019 Fischer message was potent and moving and (by original design) did little to inspire faith or hope in the powers that be, and indeed our own powers. The Joad family slowly fell away and decayed, much like the land they were attempting to escape, and though the resilience of the human spirit seemed poised to triumph, pessimism rules the day here. Fischer and the team of The Grapes of Wrath have pulled off a bold production, leveraging Steinbeck’s pessimism to tell a classic story that breaks hearts to this day.

Photo Credit: Bob Seary

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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