RICHARD Keightley, who plays George in a new adaptation of John Steinbeck’s classic novel, tells EDWIN GILSON why the story has taken on new meaning in the modern age

You must have jumped at the chance to play such an iconic role?

Absolutely. It’s a beautiful story but also heartbreaking. It’s more of a mountain of a part than I had thought it would be.

Why is it more challenging than you expected?

The second half of the play has the more obvious emotional content but in the first half my character drives a lot of the action which is physically tiring. I get to the interval and I’m quite drained. We did a lot of exercises to explore how exhausted these men must have been working on the fields. If you’ve been lugging stuff around all day it’s almost too much effort to be nice to each other. We can’t get an idea of that kind of exhaustion now.

I studied Of Mice And Men at A-level. When did you first read it?

I was 14 when I read it but I hadn’t thought about it for 20 odd years until I got the audition. Re-reading it reminded me how fantastic it is and I’ve been reading more Steinbeck in recent weeks.

You and the actor that plays Lennie must have worked hard to build up a connection.

We did a lot of exercises to portray that bond. The idea is these guys have known each other since they were very young so it has to be very close. When you’ve known someone for a long time there’s an easy physical relationship you have with someone. We did exercises where I lead him around as he was blindfolded and it was interesting to explore the responsibility I felt when i was getting him to do things. Lennie spends a lot of time trusting George implicitly so we have to reflect that.

Lennie and George have ambitions of buying their own land. Is this a real possibility or more a pipedream in the constant struggle of 1930s America?

There is that idea of just needing something to focus on to escape from the daily grind of life. George gets a huge amount of joy out of Lennie imagining that it might be a possibility. That in itself is almost worth having the dream.

The blurb mentions the “faceless destiny” the ranch workers have. Do you think that strikes a chord with modern uncertainty?

There are certainly parallels with the migrant crisis in the 1930s now and also that disengagement with politics. There are also many people believing in an ideal world where times will be better. In the same way, Lennie and George move from ranch to ranch and work relentlessly with the belief that one day things will be better.

The play has a message of empathy. Is that more important than ever with the divisions in today’s society?

Steinbeck was a great observer of people. If you read his other books, migrants are vilified for trying to encroach upon other people’s lands. The definition of empathy is to understand other people and Steinbeck does that brilliantly in his work.

How does the play replicate the dry, desolate landscapes of the great depression?

The opening of the show is people trudging across the stage with bags. A lot of the scenes take place in confined spaces but the real setting is the enormous plains of California and that was something the director wanted to get across. We wanted to evoke the idea of people travelling through vast spaces, often on their own.

Of Mice And Men, Theatre Royal Brighton, March 12 to 17, 7.45pm (2.30pm matinee on Thursday and Saturday), visit