The Grapes of Wrath – Review – West Yorkshire Playhouse, May 2017

grapes of wrath review west yorkshire playhouse

The Grapes of Wrath – Review

West Yorkshire Playhouse, May 2017

by Jethro Pope

It’s telling that a play adapted by a novel written in depression hit 1930’s America has never seemed more contemporary.

It’s always good both artistically and culturally to update a famous classic. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s realist novel, is read in every school in America and has sold around fifteen million copies. But in this production, if you hadn’t read the book or knew the story you’d be forgiven for becoming lost at times. But the play’s lack of clarity is superseded by a brittle and bold reflection of our modern, capitalised world.

In The Grapes of Wrath, we read about a family, the Joads, who lose everything in the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, where crops and the top soil literally blew away. The family sets off to find the ‘promised land’ of opportunity that was a booming pre-war California.

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“Encounters with death, birth and modern day refugees, living in a camp”

In this production at Leeds’s West Yorkshire Playhouse, adapted by Tony-award winning Frank Galati, we see the Joads struggle on their journey via a Calais refugee camp and some intermittent musical performances.

Does this modern adaptation with a political and social message work? At times yes, other times no. It seems getting across those social messages of migration and poverty over-ride the simple need to tell the story.

Driven from their home by drought and economic hardship, the Joad family, an extended bunch of God-fearing farming tenants, decide to head off to California. There, they’ve heard they can work picking grapes, peaches and other fruits, and live in relative prosperity away from the dust and depression of the south.

Along the way, they encounter death, birth and some modern day refugees, living in a camp, dispossessed, poor and finding solace in music.

The music comes in the form of songs which are sung and performed by the actors. These break up the prose and means the songs are actually dialogue sung rather than spoken. A song about route 66 appears frequently, a reference to the journey the Joads must make as though they were on the famous highway that connects America’s east and west coast.

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“Heavy and at times bleak”

This is a heavy and at times bleak play, but is lifted by the performances by all the main cast and chorus. Their energy gives movement and keeps audience interest in what otherwise could be somewhat a laborious slog (at two hours 45 minutes, it’s a long play).

The staging is creative but simple. On paper, one would struggle to see how the Colorado River could be recreated on a stage in Leeds, but thanks to an under-stage tank filled with thousands of litre of water, there she is.

Whats most interesting about this version of The Grapes of Wrath is its incorporation of modern social themes with religious and classic references. The term ‘the grapes of wrath’ is found in the Book of Revelation, a passage which refers to destruction of the Earth and oblivion. Very much like the destruction of the crops in Oklahoma and the end of the Joad’s ability to fend for themselves.

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“A message about communities”

Then there is the obvious Exodus comparisons. Like the Jews who fled Egypt for a better world, so the Joads flee to the “holy land” of the west coast, where peaches and grapes are the “milk and honey” of the land. Add in a dash of Greek theatre (the refugees are meant to represent “society” just like the chorus in Greek tragedies) and you have a play that is essentially a message about communities (the refugees are played by a community chorus, a group of volunteers from Leeds and the surrounding area).

And you can’t get much more of a community than a refugee camp. Director Abbey Wright has been to the camps at Calais and seen first-hand how people live there. Her first hand experience gives realism to the play.

The Grapes of Wrath is moving and visceral. It’s hard to imagine the struggles of the Joad family in this day and age. But then, as this play demonstrates, their story is one that never ends.


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