Of Mice and Men, one of John Steinbeck’s greatest tales, comes to Cardiff as part of a UK tour from Tuesday 3 – Saturday 7 May. An ensemble cast including Dudley Sutton (Lovejoy) presents one of the most poignant statements of being human our contemporary theatre has ever seen.
The play tells the story of George and Lennie, two migrant farm workers in search of new beginnings during the Great Depression in America. Their dream of owning land and having a home is broken when an innocent misunderstanding ends up leaving the two men facing an earth-shattering climax.
Steinbeck is considered one of the greatest storytellers of the twentieth century, and was deservedly awarded the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. As well as Of Mice and Men, he has written classic texts East of Eden and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Grapes of Wrath.
While best known for his role in Lovejoy, Dudley Sutton is also a renowned stage actor who began his career in some of the most iconic plays of the sixties, including Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. He recently discussed his role Candy in Of Mice and Men.
How would you describe the character you play in Of Mice And Men?
It’s very interesting because he’s the oldest guy and he represents the growing weakness of workers who are going to be slung on the mud heap – the dung heap – as soon as they can’t do a job anymore. He’s lost a hand already and is just doing what they called ‘swamping out’ – washing the floors and stuff – and as soon he can’t do that anymore they’ll sling him on the dung heap which means virtually the workhouse.
What’s the common ground between you and Candy?
There’s a tremendous amount. The girl in the play, Saoirse-Monaca Jackson, is 60 years younger than I am. I’m working with a whole group of young actors who are absolutely brilliant and wonderful and exciting. I’m on the way out and they’re on the way in. There’s a strange kind of sweetness in that relationship. I mostly just sit around admiring them so much I forget my cues.
And what are the big differences between you and him?
[Laughs] Well, I’ve never worked for a living. I tried it once but it didn’t really suit. No, I mustn’t be flippant. I’ve never had that grinding poverty that he has. I’ve been skint at times but never that endless grinding poverty. I saw it when I was young and working in places like Manchester; you’d see industrial wounds on the streets of Manchester and Liverpool and Birmingham and places like that. Candy has an industrial wound too because he’s lost a hand.
They say never to work with children or animals, so is it working with a dog on stage?
If you want to look it up in the history books, I’m the only actor I’ve ever come across that got a notice in a paper many years ago where the critic said I was the only actor he’d ever met who could upstage a baby lamb. That was in the Sam Shephard play The Curse Of The Starving Class. But it’s difficult with a dog because the dog in this has to be old. He’s a reflection of Candy really because he’s old and he stinks and he’s dragging his feet and he’s going blind and he’s useless. But once you let the dog take over you’re OK. When I’m trying to control the dog it doesn’t work; you just have to accept the dog is going to come onstage and every kid in the place is going to go ‘Aaah!’ They’ll all be watching the dammed dog, not me. But I like going on stage with animals and children. I’m not threatened by them.
The play dates back to 1937. Why do you think it has endured?
It has so many extraordinary resonances. It’s about the haves and have-nots, and the absolute suppression of the people by the emerging big agriculture companies. It was an extraordinary time in American history, and in a way the old guy Candy has two things – he has the comfort of his dog, which is taken away from him when his dog is shot because he’s old and is beginning to stink a lot, and his dream of being part of a group with their own bit of land, with trees, growing corn, and that dream is shattered as well. It’s a modern tragedy based on economics, and there’s always been this great divide between the haves and the have-nots. There’s always been this struggle and there will always be a struggle between capital and labour. This play is set in the late 20s and there were union strikes that had to be broken up with shotguns. People were killed by guns and pickaxe handles so you got Woody Guthrie and all those great protest songs that came out of that time. It’s as relevant today as it ever was and I can see why schools have had the book on the curriculum for so long. It’s an intensely moral play in the best sense of the word.
Is it a play you’ve always wanted to perform in?
I didn’t really know much about it and I don’t usually look at plays very deeply until I’m in them. But I started out in 1957 in the East End, in what ways then a very rundown place called Stratford which now of course is very gentrified, in the very left-wing Theatre Workshop company. So the play kind of fits well with me.
How do you feel you would have fared during the Great Depression?
It’s difficult to tell because I was educated, but I think I would have survived because I’ve always had an inquiring mind and I’ve always distrusted authority. There were wonderful movements during the Great Depression – education for working people and all the rest of it. A lot of things were going on.
What are the biggest challenges for you as an actor in playing Candy?
Everything is a challenge. Mainly it’s learning lines. Learning lines has always been a misery for me and you go through hell until you know them. But I have to say how impressed I am with the cast. It’s very well cast indeed.
The tour marks the 20th anniversary of the Touring Consortium Theatre Company. Why do you feel the work it does is so important?
Because they usually do stuff that’s on the curriculum and brings it all alive. I don’t like to think of the theatre as part of the department of do-gooding. Theatre should be challenging and I think it should be offensive. I think it’s important for it to be offensive. People need to be offended in order to think. If you airbrush everything out nobody is ever going to be offended and the whole world is going to be sanitized. We’d all be going round like a bunch of zombies. We need the argument, we need the discussion, we need the rows. Disagreement is very important but it’s discouraged on so many levels.
Do you have any pre or post show rituals?
I do lip and tongue exercises in the dressing room so I don’t flub the lines. You do imitations of motorbikes and motorboats. [Laughs] You just have to make sure your teeth don’t fall out. I also have an old voice exercise that was given to me in New York in 1960 which I still use, which has to do with falsetto and just getting the voice warmed up a bit. But I’m a bit beyond leaping about doing exercise. I tried to join in a practice game with the boys in the company the other day, which involved throwing a light handball around, and I fell over. Two of them had to pick me up because I’m a bit fat at the moment. I have to sit down and accept the fact that I’m 60 years older than the girl in the play and 40 years older than the oldest guy.
What are your career highlights?
It sounds feeble but it’s usually the one I’m currently in. But my favourite TV part was Tinker in Lovejoy which has given me friends all over the world. I also loved a film I did called The Football Factory. I’ve always liked being on the outskirts pushing in; two of the films I was involved in, The Football Factory and early on The Leather Boys, were avoided by cinemas. I’m still knocking on the door. I’m still kicking against the bricks. I’ve also always loved Shakespeare and I think most actors do because he’s always got his feet in the mud. He doesn’t get all esoteric, grand and abstract. It’s firmly rooted in reality and life and I’ve tried to make my work like that – to keep it in reality.
Of Mice and Men is at the New Theatre on Tuesday 3 – Saturday 7 May 2016. Tickets are on sale now from £9.00 – £29.50*. For further details about the show or to book tickets visit www.newtheatrecardiff.co.uk or call the Box Office on (029) 2087 8889.