Utopian Expectations (JB)

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julianabjornsdottir_dlLast night, I was fortunate enough to see the Icelandic staging of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (Mýs og Menn) at Borgarleikhúsið, the Reykjavík City Theatre.

I’ve always appreciated Steinbeck’s work and my favorite novel by him is Of Mice and Men. What I love about his simple storytelling is how it makes me feel. How it moves me to a point of tears while keeping alive my hope for that happy ending in the invisible post-final scene.

My depiction of the invisible ending has always been the utopian version. An escape from the sour existence of the ranch and establishing roots for a better life.

That somehow the protagonists escape the loneliness of solitary living that the Great Depression inflicted upon so many men whose only hope of employment was to travel from one farm to yet another ranch in search of temporary work.

The story has always moved me. The social realism bleeds on the pages of the book and sets the standards for the stage rendition.

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In reality, loneliness and solitude is the only realistic end for men like George and Candy. Lennie is too innocent for this world and Curley’s wife too much in need of heartfelt companionship.

The story continues to be relevant in our days.

All the characters are in search of happiness, for roots, for someone or somewhere to call home. To abandon the aimless wandering to a non-destination.

Home and companionship is the very core of the utopian dream shared by most solitary workers. Whatever their life was before the Great Depression laid her heavy burden on the common man and woman, that life is gone. It no longer exists and at the time there was no welfare system to rely on for assistance. It’s do or die. Man was stripped to his core and forced to survive. The only way to rise above survival is hope. In this case, family or companionship and a home Steinbeck was a writer who truly understood the individual and man’s need for companionship and home.

I suspect many of you have read the novel or at least know the basic outline of the story. Nonetheless, I won’t go explicitly into the details as to avoid giving away too much to those who have not.

I have no intention of going into deep literature analysis but rather to express my satisfaction with the Icelandic theater scene.

The cast embraced the bluntness of the piece, the telling of an uncomfortable truth and as an audience, I felt the violent sadness so overwhelming in the novel.

I had high expectations and the cast delivered, giving a moving performance. Ólafur Darri Ólafsson played Lennie, relative newcomer to the theater scene Hilmar Guðjónsson George, and Theodór Júlíusson Candy.

Candy has always been the character whose heartbreaking life is a depiction of reality. Loss of a loved one renders him utterly alone at the end of a miserable life. Theodór Júlíusson’s performance captures the momentary beacon of hope at the end of a sad life.

Ólafur Darri is an actor who’s made quite the reputation for himself in recent years both as a film and stage actor. In Of Mice and Men, his childlike demeanor as Lennie is simply endearing. The puppy eyes on this giant bearish man standing next to the seemingly small George are full of the innocence of eternal youth.

The undying belief in a happy ending that only a child is able to sustain,—despite all hardships—is the very heart of his performance and it is believable all the way to the end.

Hilmar Guðjónsson is a young Icelandic actor who in 2011 was selected to join a group of young European film actors and actresses on the rise. His interpretation of George, a young but experienced man who is no stranger to the hard reality of the Great Depression years.

The bonds of brotherhood between Lennie and George evoke hope even in the most skeptical of viewers. Together, they have a dream of a better life, a dream that means nothing without the other.

Family they have, a home they want.

An often-neglected character is the role of Curley’s wife, portrayed by actress Álfrún Helga Örnólfsdóttir, a film and stage actress who played the protagonist in one of my favorite Icelandic films, Dís.

She captures the desperately lonely and isolated young wife who is neglected by her husband and forbidden to speak to the other men due to their fear of her attractiveness.

The rage within and the desperate need for human touch are expressed in the facade of arrogance and vulnerability when in the presence of innocence too kind to condemn.

All the characters are deemed to a life of misery, unless they escape to the land of dreams and hope. Utopia is unattainable.

Social prejudice is also a topic portrayed through the isolation of Crooks, here named ‘Útlendingurinn, ’ or ‘the foreigner’ despite being born in the same country as the rest of the workers. Crippled in one hand, he is ignored and deemed invaluable by the others who feel their claim to the country is stronger.

The role was adapted- from a black man to a foreigner born to immigrants to give it relevance to Icelandic society.

The period piece focuses on the individual and dreams drowned in the miserable reality that was the Great Depression. The crew did a splendid job with the manuscript and the setting was an example of grand minimalisism with wooden boxes dressed in dirtified canvas bags to give the impression of the outdoors and the murky shacks in which workers spent their nights after long and thankless days of hard physical labor.

Everything is intentional in the production, ranging from the cover on the program to parallel reference to the condition of man and man’s best friend.

Steinbeck’s view as I have come to understand it, that utopia is at last just a word hope hangs onto for survival was the theme of the performance.

The lesson I take from Steinbeck is that we should always aspire to be better and kind.

The cast and crew deserve a deafening applause for a terrific show and a beautiful interpretation.

Júlíana Björnsdóttir – julianabjornsdottir@gmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.