Adapted by Geoffrey Beevers from the novel by George Eliot
Directed by Geoffrey Beevers
Venue: Orange Tree Theatre
Date: Monday 6th January 2014
This is the first part of The Middlemarch Trilogy adapted by Geoffrey Beevers from the novel by George Eliot. We’re booked for parts two and three on consecutive days, and already I’m keen to see how some of these characters develop when viewed from a fresh perspective. Today’s offering was very entertaining, with more humour than I’d expected; a TV adaptation years ago had left me with the impression that the story was dreadfully dull and the characters mostly unpleasant and uninteresting, and I’m delighted to report that that assessment was completely wrong. These characters were clearly drawn but not superficial or stereotypical; I could sympathise with many of them while still being aware of their flaws, and I certainly cared enough to want to know what happened to each of them through the twists and turns of a fairly complex plot.
This opening story concentrated on Dorothea and her unhappy marriage to Mr Casaubon, the rector of Lowick. We started off by seeing two potential suitors for Dorothea’s hand: the aforementioned Mr Casaubon and Sir James Chettam, a neighbour of Dorothea’s uncle and one of the local gentry. I don’t know if there are any other suitors in the novel, but these two worked very well to show us Dorothea’s major character flaw – a fanatical yearning for self-sacrifice in a noble cause (poor girl). Naturally with that obsession on her part, plus a reasonable amount of intelligence, she saw the decaying but intellectual Casaubon as a veritable babe magnet compared to the relatively straightforward (and much younger) country squire Sir James.
With short scenes and plenty of narration by the other actors, and even by the characters themselves at times, the story of Dorothea’s choice of suitor and resulting marriage, together with a number of other events, all rattled through at a good pace. We saw Sir James decide with remarkable rapidity to transfer his attentions to Dorothea’s more compatible (and sensible) younger sister Celia, and their marriage was soon blessed with offspring. Will Ladislaw, Casaubon’s cousin, was first encountered at Lowick and they met him again on the wedding journey when Dorothea and her husband stayed in Rome for a while. Mr Lydgate, a surgeon, arrived in Middlemarch and was soon involved in treating Mr Casaubon for what appeared to be heart disease, though naturally the diagnosis wasn’t couched in modern terms. Dorothea’s uncle, Mr Brooke, was also present a good deal, not just as her uncle and guardian but also for his political involvement, which led to the continuing presence in Middlemarch of Mr Ladislaw. With a lot of information to pack in, the first ‘half’ lasted for over ninety minutes, and culminated in the death of Mr Casaubon in the garden.
The second half began with Sir James and Mr Brooke discussing the appalling codicil to Casaubon’s will: Dorothea inherits everything as long as she doesn’t marry Will Ladislaw. Dorothea was being protected from this knowledge, as she’d been particularly distraught at her husband’s death. The night before he’d asked her to make a “deliberate promise” to obey his wishes even after he was dead. She had tussled with this request through what was left of the night, and had been going into the garden to tell Casaubon that she would agree to his request when she found him already dead. For most of us that would have been a great relief – her sister certainly thought Dorothea could celebrate the event more – but for someone as fanatical and highly strung as Dorothea it was clearly a shocking blow. Still, she got over her grief well enough to start filling her life with good works – she was basically a good person, for all her faults – and eventually realised that her feelings for Ladislaw were indeed love. After a number of misunderstandings the two eventually got together, and the closing of the play suggested a very happy ending for them. I’m not so sure it would be all that rosy, but what do I know?
The set and staging contributed massively to this performance. The stage had diagonal wooden flooring across most of the space, with variations such as flagstones in the corners to match the locale suggested by that doorway’s decoration. Over the main entrance was a suggestion of carved wooden panels, accompanied by empty picture frames. Round to the left the columns had been completely covered with strands of yew bole and there were leafless branches intertwined above; these branches spread around the whole balcony, although they were less obvious by the main entrance. To the right was a stonework balustrade above the entrance with a diamond-shaped pattern in the flagstones below, and in the far corner was a section of bookcase with a narrow shelf underneath containing rolls of paper.
On the stage stood a small desk and two red plush upright chairs, one beside the desk on the right hand side of the stage and the other a little forward of the main entrance, while on the desk was a large sheet of paper. (I noticed the little flap which concealed the spinet keyboard later, when Mrs Lydgate opened it up to play.) There were also small stools with red cushions beside the end of each front row, two to each corner – I realised that the actors might be getting more up close and personal than usual in this theatre. Under each stool there was a stash of props: a woman’s cap, a copy of The Pioneer newspaper, a candle and matches, more papers tucked in a book – these were all in our immediate vicinity – and more props emerged during the performance from the other stools. Some extra furniture was brought on as needed, including a chaise for Mrs Lydgate to sit on, but this set up allowed for very quick and easy changes of scene which helped the performance to flow more easily.
The staging was another excellent feature of this production. The stools allowed the actors to be handy for their entrances without being so obviously ‘on stage’. They could stand up to do a bit of narration or to enter a scene, and disappear just as quickly. This gave a very strong sense of audience involvement throughout the performance, and since some of the scenes were very short, it also allowed the storytelling to flow easily. When Casaubon was showing his new wife and the in-laws around Lowick, they used a neat trick to show the characters moving from room to room. The group would move towards the corner to leave the room, pause, then turn around again and ‘be’ in the next room or the garden – a nice touch. I also liked the little dog which Sir James attempted to present to Dorothea as a present. It was a sweet little white toy dog, and Sir James not only made it move as he held it, he also supplied a lot of the dog noises as well, ably assisted by Mr Brook towards the end. The desk was often shifted to indicate another location, and we soon knew exactly where we were just from that movement, regardless of the additional narration.
When the Casaubons were studying paintings in Rome, a couple of large nudes (paintings) were placed in opposite corners for them to admire. Celia’s child was played by a rag doll with a very large face, and Celia herself turned out to be a very drippy mother, besotted with her little darling. There were a few occasions when the lower classes had to be admitted onto the stage; for these, the actors donned a different hat or a shawl and used broad country accents. They turned out in force to hear Mr Brooke’s political speech which he made from the balcony, and to show their contempt for him, an effigy was paraded around while he was speaking and the rabble threw things at it! Mind you, it wasn’t much of a speech, so I really can’t blame them.
There were some lovely touches in the characterisations as well. When Mr Casaubon gave Dorothea a first kiss, it was an impeccably chaste one on the forehead – a sign of things to come – and later, when she gently embraced him in a moment of loving, his slightly disapproving comment “You are excited, my dear” raised a laugh. Mrs Cadwallader was wonderfully shocked to hear the news of Dorothea’s engagement to Mr Casaubon, but soon adjusted her tactics and deftly planted the idea that Celia would make a very good wife in Sir James’ relatively empty head.
Dorothea’s idealism and naivety reminded me very much of Lady Chiltern in Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, and if she were around today no doubt she would be a fervent socialist or possibly an eco-warrior (or even both). Mr Casaubon’s views on their marriage and his disappointment that things weren’t as he expected them to be, made his character more understandable if not exactly likeable.
Not having read the book, I don’t know for sure how well Geoffrey Beevers has captured the characters. We learned in the post-show that the dialogue is almost entirely Eliot’s own, and the sense of a sharp-eyed observer of human nature certainly came across very strongly. Others at the post-shows who had read the book were strongly appreciative, and many who hadn’t read it before expressed a desire to read it now. Geoffrey Beevers had known he would have to write more than one play to bring this novel to the stage, and the idea of showing the story from three different angles was one he settled on early. Ideally, the plays could be seen in any order, but from the audience feedback it seemed that the best ways would be either the one we’re doing – Dorothea’s Story, then The Doctor’s Story followed by Fred And Mary – or the reverse order; The Doctor’s Story was apparently harder to follow as an opening piece. There are some repeated scenes between the plays – lots of calls not to give too much away – but they change depending on what aspects of the scene are relevant for that particular play.
We finished with a discussion of George Eliot’s life and relationships; although she’d had a long-term relationship with a chap called Lewes, he was married to someone else. She was married briefly to another man, late in life, and died soon after their return from a rather bizarre honeymoon in Venice, where her new husband jumped out of their hotel window and landed in the Grand Canal. Truth is often stranger than fiction, it seems.
© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me