Monday 28 October 2013

Theatre Review: The Middlemarch Trilogy: Dorothea’s Story (Orange Tree)

Photo: Robert Day 
Following Springs Eternal, the Orange Tree’s ambitious project to stage George Eliot’s Middlemarch as a centrepiece of Sam Walters’s final season gets underway with Dorothea’s Story. Writer/director Geoffrey Beevers has adapted Eliot’s text into three separate but interconnected productions which will run until February next year. Each of the three shows – The Doctor’s Story and Fred and Mary are to follow - takes a strand of the novel as its focal point and the trilogy can be viewed in any order or seen in one go on select dates from late December. As its title suggests this first instalment focuses upon the marriage of Eliot’s heroine Dorothea to the dry academic Casaubon and Dorothea’s gradual, growing attraction to Casaubon’s younger cousin Will Ladislaw. And while the production has some shortcomings, at its best it’s a distinctive, highly theatrical adaptation, and an engaging and promising start to the Trilogy overall.

Beevers has form as an adaptor of Eliot: his takes on Adam Bede and Silas Marner have been staged at the OT in previous years. But, as he acknowledges in the programme essay, Middlemarch is a more challenging proposition: a less overtly “dramatic” narrative of interconnected lives in a provincial town in the 1830s, lives that Eliot explores with a scrupulous attention that the critic Kate Briggs has likened to that of a scientist examining “the tiny, interconnecting veins of a leaf through the lens of a microscope.” Eliot’s intricate focus on the interior worlds of her characters is a challenge for the stage, and it’s one that Beevers’s production attempts to meet by having the actors break off from the dialogue exchanges to speak their characters’ thoughts and feelings in third-person to the audience. This device gives the proceedings a decidedly arch tone that doesn’t always sit well with the novel’s moral seriousness: at first, the production seems more Austen than Eliot in its emphasis on irony and social comedy.

But the production’s approach becomes more beguiling as the evening progresses and the artifice of aspects of the concept (such as some early Woman in Black-style business) is transcended. Necessarily eschewing an opulent heritage take on the text, Beevers instead opts for sparseness and spryness throughout. Scene shifts are super-swift and Sam Dowson’s design conjures interior and exterior spaces with a bare minimum of props. The lights are often left up, and, between their scenes, the actors take a casual pew amongst the audience, becoming onlookers.

While this doesn’t add up to the detailed social picture that the novel (or Andrew Davies’s great 1994 BBC adaptation) provided it does allow the emotional content of the text to resonate; the dynamics of the Casaubons’s miserable marriage and Dorothea’s connection to Will are drawn with particular insight. The political context is sketchier, but the hard-working cast – by turns protagonists, narrators and observers – do succeed in suggesting a community. Georgina Strawson brings the right kind of earnestness and idealism to Dorothea, subtly engaging our emotions so that it’s a powerful moment when the character belatedly drops to the floor to weep. Jamie Newall makes the pursed cold fish Casaubon an oddly captivating presence. Ben Lambert contributes an attractive Will, Christopher Ettridge a hearty Mr. Brooke and Liz Crowther a wily, funny Mrs. Cadwallader. And throughout Beevers skilfully keeps the characters in balance so that we have hints of the dramas occurring for, say, the doctor Lydgate (David Ricardo-Pearce) on the periphery of Dorothea’s story. The evening is lengthy (another near three-hour OT marathon) but lively, and the viewer leaves eager to see the rest.

The productions are booking until 1st February. Further information at the Orange Tree website.

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