The Grapes of Wrath ***

There is something fitting about seeing this production of The Grapes of Wrath just days after Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize.  As the dust settles, it seems most of the world is in agreement: Obama won out of expectation of future results and not for his past work.  Wrath is based on John Steinbeck’s seminal novel, and he would later win the Nobel, with this work being cited as reason number one.  And yet, anyone without previous experience of the novel will probably wonder why the story received such high praise.

Wrath is a harsh piece of journalistic storytelling.  Steinbeck used the novel form to dramatise the harsh realities of the farmers affected by the infamous ‘Dust Bowl’ of the 1930s.  Focusing on the fictional Joad family, Steinbeck not only depicted the harsh economic realities that poor farmers and migrant workers faced but also the political oppression that was commonplace.  His story is an upsetting one where desperation is constant and dreams of economic stability in an almost mythical California prove to be impossible.

The first problem lies with Frank Galati’s adaptation.  Much lauded when it premiered 20 years ago, the script actually feels a bit clunky today.  It is a fairly faithful adaptation and manages to tick most of the plot and character boxes, but it takes nearly three hours to perform and its focus on plot means that much of the impact that the characters are supposed to carry gets sidelined.  There are some juicy moments where the passion found in the novel comes screaming out, but they are unfortunately rare.

Problem two lies in the production’s attempts at feeling ‘American’.  Though these are hard-living characters, the actors portray them with too much reserve, resulting in performances that don’t emotionally connect much and feel less like a genuine family unit.  The Joads are a loving family, and that warmth is only occasionally glimpsed.  And the accents are uneven at best, with many actors sounding like poor imitations of Forrest Gump rather than lower-class farmers.

This is not to say that it is a bad production, because it isn’t.  The three hours do pass fairly quickly, and there are some rather good performances, notably from Oliver Cotton as the fallen Reverend Jim Casy, Sorcha Cusack as kind-hearted matriarch Ma Joad, Christopher Timothy as hard-working and honest Pa Joad and Damian O’Hare as the recently paroled and politically conscious son Tom.  Director Jonathan Church manages to keep the staging brisk, and there are some creative uses of design, including the use of projections of American commercials that serve as cruel jokes and the rather impressive set piece of a car.

However, for a work that many consider to be one of the 20th century’s greatest artistic achievements, the story on show here feels lightweight.  If only this production had more audacity and less hope, it would equal the braveness of the original and result in a harrowing experience rather than a thoughtful romp through unpleasantness.

Originally written for Onstage Scotland.

Playing at the Kings in Edinburgh until October 17.

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