The title of John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, is a reference to lyrics from ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, by Julia Ward Howe:
‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.’
The third line is particularly pertinent as director Abbey Wright’s staging of the Pulitzer Prize winning adaption by Frank Galati faithfully reproduces fateful lightning and a swift sword with relentless enthusiasm: it is not for the faint-hearted. The migrating family are struck with every kind of fate imaginable in the desperation of ‘having to keep on’, as Ma dogmatically espouses. And it is the women that carry on regardless, even to the final scene where Ma’s daughter offers the milk from her breast destined for her miscarried daughter to a stranger in a barn as the flood waters carry everyone else away.
This final scene of humanity, divine justice, reflects the notion that the poorer you are, the more likely you are to give to others who equally have nothing. The play encompasses all the Depression themes of lawlessness, exploitation, union battles of the oppressed, mixed with the hope that religion is the final salvation. But as the Preacher dies calling for an acknowledgment of the human suffering, the reliance on the ‘self’ becomes ever more prominent.
The book and play fictionalise historical accounts of the abuse meted out to migrant workers crossing the dust bowl of America in search of a new life as part of the Great Depression. But there is no yellow brick road and the streets of California they talk of are not paved with gold: dreams, however small (fixing cars), are dashed with no sentiment or quarter for the dreamer, manipulation and death being meted out in equal unfairness on ‘decent people’. The large cast portray well the hopelessness of the time, tiredness and frustration being the foremost emotions.
The message that the world has not changed much is enforced by the reference to the Calais migrant camps, interspersing modern-dressed chorus with those of the established cast of the 1930s. The southern drawl allows for little emotion, being very downbeat, and the chosen musical interludes are sharp and discordant, even in the one ‘dance’ or ‘movement’ moment, as if to emphasise that ‘fun’ and ‘good times’ were never far away from the struggles of reality. No real humour to offset the trudging makes it all very bleak, like watching the soullessness of a current newsreel on loop, which was perhaps the intent. The set is equally as barren as the lives portrayed, offering nothing much more than steel, metal and hessian oblong boxes. Use of the water trough is the only slightly ‘light’ interlude, repeated to good use to show the rising of the overflowing waters.
More to inform and prompt than to entertain, some of the evening’s images will however remain in the memory as a continued reminder of man’s dispensing of both humanity and inhumanity in equal terms. Fans of Steinbeck’s work will not be disappointed.
The production, which is three hours in length, contains full frontal nudity and gunshots. It is at the Nuffield until 25 March at 7.30, with matinées at 2.30 on 18 and 25 March, and then on tour.