12A – 140mins – 2014
Written by: John Steinbeck
Directed by: Anna Shapiro
Starring: James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, Jim Norton, Leighton Meester
FATTA THE LAN’
I fondly remember John Steinbeck’s 1937 Depression-era novel as required reading at school which – remarkably – everyone seemed to enjoy. This may have been helped by the 1992 film adaptation starring Gary Sinise and John Malkovich in the roles of migrant ranch workers George and Lenny, which we got to watch whenever the teacher’s fancied an easy lesson.
Therefore my interest was piqued when I discovered that a revived stage version of the novel was being screened in UK cinemas for one night only last Thursday evening. Being a Cineworld Unlimited Card owner for some nine years now, I am well aware of the recent trend for event productions at the cinema, but I had never been inspired to see how well the live medium transfers to the silver screen.
Of Mice and Men provided that inspiration; doubly so because Irish actor Chris O’Dowd was playing the physically-strong-but-mentally-disabled role of Lennie Small. I am aware he’s successfully taken on dramatic TV roles beyond The IT Crowd, but he will always be lovable oaf Roy to me, and I was curious to see how he tackled such a difficult and demanding character, particularly one which John Malkovich had already so perfectly embodied.
I can tell you that O’Dowd was a revelation, erasing any trait of his Irish lilt to transform into the nervous, excitable childlike giant. He stole the show for me, but I am jumping ahead. As this was my first experience of NT Live, I was completely unsure of what to expect – was the camerawork dynamic or set in one position so to give you an audience member’s P.O.V.? Were there any adverts prior to the feature? Would there be an interval? Would I still get in for free with my Unlimited Card?
In fact, we – like a couple of members of Cineworld staff – were not even sure if it was live via satellite link or simply presented as live. Following a brief reel of National Theatre promotional adverts (brief compared to the almost half an hour of trailers you get before a blockbuster), this was answered by a talking head introduction from a National Theatre representative who explained that this was an “Encore” presentation of a recording made in New York last year.
I must confess that the fact this wasn’t a live satellite link was slightly disappointing, particularly given the inflated entrance fees of £17.50 for an Adult and £8.00 for Unlimited cardholders. If you were watching a once-in-lifetime event as it happened on the other side of the world, the price would be justified, but for a recording made a year ago which it was just decided to repeat once, made the price harder to justify.
But undeterred, the show got underway, with the initial camera set-up presenting the entire stage and giving the impression you were sitting in the gallery of NY’s Longacre Theatre. However the minute O’Dowd and James Franco strode onto the minimalist stage, the camera shifted, capturing the actors as a film would. In hindsight, there wouldn’t be any point having a director if it didn’t.
Aside from this omnipresent vantage point, the play was presented as it was on the night, capturing audience reactions (sometimes inappropriate, I thought, as they laughed at Lenny’s ignorance) and snatches of silence when they didn’t, or when a microphone didn’t quite pick up an actor’s dialogue. And yes, there was an interval. 15minutes of views of the stage as the audience nattered and moved towards the toilets/concession stand, interspersed with shots of the theatre’s exterior, decked in the play’s posters as famous yellow taxis cruised past. This was followed by a short “bonus feature” comprising archive footage from the American Depression alongside clips of the play and interviews with the cast and crew, before the second half got underway.
Aided by the story galloping towards that tragic finale, the shorter second half did feel remarkably quicker, and as much as my heart had twinged in the first half as old-timer Curly (Norton) had sunk into sorrow as he had reluctantly had his beloved dog lead out to slaughter, I wasn’t quite as moved by the powerful conclusion as I anticipated I might. This is not to do an injustice to the actors – both Franco and O’Dowd had tears in their eyes as George delivered a final glimmer of hope to his dear-but-doomed companion – but it felt a tad rushed in my opinion, not helped by the fact that the stage went black and the play finished the second the shot sounded.
All the actors did themselves proud – and you could physically see the pride radiating off of Franco and O’Dowd’s faces as they returned to the stage to take a bow – and the story transferred perfectly to the stage, with just four well-designed sets and a limited cast. I was initially concerned that amiable Hollywood star Franco was too young and wouldn’t have the gravitas to convey George’s firm-but-fair manner, but he certainly won me over with his conviction.
Despite having not read or studied the book since I was 16, a lot of the dialogue (“ketchup” and “rabbits” are brought up a lot) and story came flooding back to me, and the sense of spirit during such harsh, desperate times was well conveyed, but as a cinematic experience it is not one I will rush to repeat, because it didn’t feel remarkably different or special in comparison to a film viewing, and therefore didn’t justify the hugely inflated admission charge.