The Doctor’s Story – January 2014

Experience: 8/10

Adapted by Geoffrey Beevers from the novel by George Eliot

Directed by Geoffrey Beevers

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre

Date: Tuesday 7th January 2014

This eagerly awaited second part of The Middlemarch Trilogy was just as good as the first. It wasn’t quite as funny, and the storyline might well have been harder to follow for anyone who hadn’t already seen Dorothea’s Story, but the afternoon was still very entertaining and the insights into a different set of characters were just as perceptive and witty as before. We were very relieved to learn the truth about the death of Mr Raffles – we had some concerns about the doctor’s involvement after yesterday – and the play ended just as happily, with the details of the Lydgate’s subsequent good fortune and successful marriage.

The set was much the same as for Dorothea’s Story. The biggest difference was that the trailing branches were in leaf. The plant in the left corner turned out to be a wisteria, and the yew boles had vanished to be replaced by square yellow-ish stone columns. The furniture was in exactly the same position as for Monday’s performance, although the stools round the sides had different props tucked under them. We sat beside the wisteria this time, and our view of the action was just as good as yesterday.

The Doctor’s Story began with the party to celebrate Dorothea’s engagement to Mr Casaubon, only this time we heard more of the comments of the other guests, especially the reactions of the two established medical men to the arrival of a new doctor with his new-fangled ideas. Then we met the Vincy family, and saw how Rosamund decided to set her sights on the handsome young doctor, achieving the task with remarkable ease. They were soon married, and by the time we reached the interval they were already in debt through maintaining too lavish a lifestyle. As Rosie broke down in tears, her husband gave in and comforted her, giving up all notions of moving to a smaller house and selling off their furniture. Rosie’s narration over his shoulder – “she had mastered him” – ended the first half, as well as giving us all a good laugh.

The second half seemed to be more about Mr Bulstrode at first. Immediately after the interval, following a spot of self-satisfaction at how well he’d done in life, Mr Bulstrode encountered Mr Raffles, and suddenly Bulstrode was smelling compost instead of roses. The chain of events which led to Raffles ‘falling ill’ and being nursed at Bulstrode’s new residence was quickly told, and soon Bulstrode faced a difficult dilemma. Well, difficult for him, given that Raffles knew enough about Bulstrode’s past life to destroy any reputation or pretence of respectability which Bulstrode had built up. The doctor became involved in the treatment of Raffles, and his instructions were clear – no alcohol whatsoever. Bulstrode’s failure to pass on this crucial piece of information to the servant who attended Raffles on his last night was initially an oversight; he did remember in time to rectify the error however, and didn’t.

The doctor’s situation was complicated by the fact that, in the battle of local politics he’d backed a loser, and since he gave his time free to the new hospital and his practice was struggling, he needed financial help from somewhere. The fact that Bulstrode had given the doctor a wodge of money just before Raffles’ unfortunate demise, in Bulstrode’s house and under the doctor’s care, was enough to set tongues wagging at a ferocious rate. Fortunately, Dorothea came to the doctor’s rescue and bought out his debt to Bulstrode, so the Lydgates were saved.

The staging was as before, with the cast sitting in the corners of the stage amongst the audience and giving us the narration along with their lines. I very much liked meeting Mr Farebrother’s female relatives; all played by Liz Crowther, she winningly played each character differently in the space of a mere curtsey, and we laughed in appreciation. And I liked the fact that the sewing, of which there was plenty, was all done in mime; not only does it avoid sharp needles, it’s lovely to be close enough to notice that sort of thing. It was also very interesting to see some scenes repeated with minor changes to shift the emphasis; from the post-show talks, this was the aspect that gave the actors the most difficulty, especially when they returned to one of the plays after a gap.

In today’s post-show, Geoffrey was asked how long it took him to write the adaptation. He started three years ago, and fitted it in among his other work. He did a read-through when he was with the RSC and there were some later workshops, so very little changed during rehearsals. The first part took longer to write than the others; once the format was set up, the other two stories were easier to fit in. There was some discussion again about what order to see the plays, despite Sam Walters suggesting it would be better to say absolutely nothing about it!

When it came to deciding how many actors were needed to perform the plays, Geoffrey’s principle is to ask ‘what can you do without?’. Unlike some larger companies who throw the kitchen sink at every production (you can fill in your own names here), Geoffrey prefers to engage the audience’s imagination – that’s what theatre is about after all. (How true. I knew there was reason I liked the man.) So he knew he needed eleven actors before they began rehearsals. Actually, it was only ten for Dorothea’s Story, but eleven for the other two. When choosing the roles to double, he took into account the contrasting personalities, both for the actor’s benefit and for ours. The actors have the fun of playing two completely different characters, and we audiences love to see an actor demonstrate that sort of range, often changing swiftly from one persona to another in the blink of eye right in front of us. (Also true.)

The plays were written for the Orange Tree’s in-the-round stage but could be played in a different space. Someone suggested there were hints of a proscenium arch in the text (sadly not published yet). Geoffrey came to Middlemarch via adaptations of Adam Bede and then Silas Marner (for the Orange Tree), and has also done adaptations of Turgenev for radio plus some abridgements, also for radio. When asked about other possible adaptations of Eliot’s work, he remarked that Daniel Deronda would be difficult to deal with because of its Zionist content; acceptable in its time, it could be tricky to present such attitudes to a modern audience.

There was a question about making Dorothea believable to a modern audience, but it turned out that many young people relate to Dorothea more than any other character in the book. The fact that the couples in the novel were prepared to work at their marriages was commented on, and generally considered to be a definite change from contemporary  novels.

Despite being ‘outed’ early on, George Eliot never published under her own name which is presumably why we remember her by her nom de plume, unlike the Brontës. She had no standing in society, even though her novels were highly respected, and had to endure a restricted social life as her relationship with George Lewes was frowned upon by society. One lady in the audience asked for a recording of the production so she could listen to it again and again – wouldn’t that be nice – and we finished on a comment that although Fred and Mary’s story is a subplot, it’s central to the morality of the whole piece – SHHHhhhhhh…

© 2014 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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