On first hearing that Grapes of Wrath was going to be on at the UEA Drama Studio, the gates of nostalgia were thrown open. Rewind more eighteen months to a different time, when I was gearing up to take to the stage in this very play, blissfully unaware of the lasting impact it would have on me. Community, being the play’s central theme, was certainly infectious; being amongst the cast was very much like joining a new family on this great journey westward. I was very keen on how the third-year production would deliver compared to my experience, and it certainly gave it a run for its money.
In Tim Baker’s take on Steinbeck’s classic, this multi-perspective production mixed honest and humble humour, and reignited the importance of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel by communicating its sonorous message of compassion, faith and unity in the toilsome plight of refuge. The play was very engaging from the start, when the ensemble with echoing voices pieced together a very desolate setting of “Dust Bowl” Oklahoma, and the tales of utter desperation of the Joad family’s situation as they were about to embark on their passage to California.
The heads of the Joad family Ma and Pa Joad (played by Molly-Rose Treves and Fergus O’Loan respectively) each gave a stoic, full-bodied performance, encapsulating the weight of such a stifling task of responsibility on such fragile shoulders. Treves’ spellbinding performance unleashed a feisty matriarch who through her resilience and faith is capable of the arduous task of keeping the Joad family spirit up despite the ills of ignorance, dust, and disease encountered by the family during their pilgrimage to the beacon of hope in California.
Another eye-catching performance was Seb Fear’s portrayal of Tom Joad, the ex-prisoner who is never far away from the action. Tom’s story represents the vulnerability of young masculinity in the plight of refuge, an image that has a chilling resonance in the wake of the portrayal of young men in the recent refuge crisis. Fear’s performance oozed of a sense of humble enigma, and he contributed with the play’s most authentic depiction of humanity.
The main strength of this production was its ability to command a sense of unity (something we all need in a not too United Kingdom). The tales of hardship, of solidarity and refuge are so poignant that its parable will live on past the 1930s dust bowl. It is a strong reminder of how the power of the human soul, whose power is only realised in how open it is to those in great need, is the greatest force for good, especially in these times where humanity needs to show its true face.