Of Mice and Men: An Interview with Director Iain Sinclair

The upcoming Sport for Jove production Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck, directed by Iain Sinclair, has particular relevance for Australia’s contemporary situation. “[The play] is very relevant when you look at our treatment of migrant workers because that’s what Lennie (Andrew Henry) and George (Anthony Gooley) are: migrant workers. It highlights how our reservoir of compassion is draining, even now.”

“There are a million Cliffnotes and Sparknotes about Steinbeck but I think the main reason why it drew me in is that it’s a wonderful portrait about what economic austerity does to our soul and spirit, and what loneliness triggers in us as we become poorer and start to only look out for ourselves. [Of Mice and Men] is about two men who for no reason look after each other, and everyone else [at the ranch where they work] is amazed by this friendship.”

Iain Sinclair is a Canberra success story. After studying at ANU from 1988-90, he studied acting at NIDA for two years before coming back to finish his Honours at the ANU. He then went to the UK to do a Masters in Directing and came back to Canberra to start a small acting company called Elbow Theatre, which ran for 6 years until government arts funding ran out. Sinclair comments on his regret for the end of Elbow Theatre: “I just couldn’t keep actors in Canberra so we all had to move to the big centres, which was a shame because we all wanted to see a boutique acting company in the nation’s capital.”

“This is my first production with Sport for Jove,” says Sinclair. “I’ve been a strong supporter of them for a long time and loved their work but it’s Damien Ryan’s enterprise. I started working with the two boys first, Lennie and George, before anyone any other cast members turned up and this was to create a sense of richness in their interaction. I then slowly added cast members [to the rehearsals] depending on how long they had been at the ranch.” I mention that he seems like an efficient director and he laughs. “Efficiency comes with age!”

Sinclair has 43 shows under his belt, many of which have been with the Sydney Theatre Company where he was Assistant Theatre Director for several years, working with Gale Edwards, Jean-Pierre Mignon, Cate Blanchett and Max Stafford-Clark, among others. Sinclair is modest about his achievements. “I’m a classic sort of journeyman director,” he jokes. “You do everything you can to make the dots add up, and sometimes it all adds up and sometimes you get a 3 month holiday.”

I ask what relevance Steinbeck’s play has for modern Australian audiences and Sinclair is enthusiastic with his response. “Of Mice and Men is an invitation for compassion and that’s what makes it land so particularly with audiences. What I’m really struck by is the emotional engagement that the audiences are taking from it. The past 10 years in theatre has been ideas and aesthetics heavy, and that’s been important to catch up with the Europeans… [but] there is a hunger in Australian audiences to engage emotionally again. That’s why television is doing so well at the moment. Masterchef is a good example – it’s like an opera with food.”

“We’ve been in the shallows for too long and a nicely constructed piece of theatre [like Of Mice and Men] addresses that hunger. People walk out resolved to do better about people who are doing it tough and that’s a good thing in Australian culture at the moment because we’re being encouraged more towards austerity or to “turn mean” as Steinbeck calls it. The main idea of the play is not to turn away from our economically oppressed but to show compassion for them.”

Of Mice and Men runs at the Canberra Theatre Playhouse 6-8 August.