Tuesday 10 December 2013

Theatre Review: The Middlemarch Trilogy: Fred and Mary (Orange Tree)

Photo: Robert Day

Following Dorothea’s Story and The Doctor’s Story, the Orange Tree’s absorbing Middlemarch Trilogy concludes with Fred and Mary. It’s a lively, fetching and fond finale. While the previous instalments took as their principal focus the novel’s two famous miserable marriages (those between Dorothea and Casaubon and Lydgate and Rosamund), the last part of Geoffrey Beevers’s adaptation offers a counter of sorts by honing in on one of the text’s more peripheral - and, ultimately, more affirmative – relationships: that between Rosamund’s brother Fred and Mary Garth, daughter of a land agent and nurse to Fred’s uncle Featherstone. Another pair of contrasting types, Fred and Mary’s is a union forged in childhood that’s being renegotiated in adulthood. It’s challenged by Fred’s fecklessness, as he abandons his university studies, flirts with entering the Church, and counts on a legacy from Featherstone to get him out of his debts – an inheritance that Mary inadvertently ends up thwarting.  

If Beevers was intimidated by the prospect of adapting Middlemarch for the stage, then he hasn’t let it show. His respect for the text is plainly evident in his faithful replication of Eliot’s language, both in the dialogue interludes and the authorial commentary that’s shared, beautifully, by the cast as choric commentators. But he also treats the novel lightly, and a bit irreverently, clearly enjoying the challenge of translating its broad social picture into a tiny theatre. As my response to Dorothea’s Story demonstrated, the often cheeky approach takes a bit of getting used to. But by this third instalment it feels perfectly natural, and the production’s deft avoidance of either flagrant anachronism on the one hand or fussy period fustiness on the other is one of its most admirable qualities. And it’s fun to see Beevers continuing to spring playful surprises on us, such as the production’s presentation of Mary’s siblings Ben and Letty (which it would be churlish to reveal here).   

The attention and care that the director has put into the Trilogy continues to pay dividends in this final part, with several scenes echoing, reprising or deepening those in the previous instalments. If aspects of the political context remain sketchier than they do in the novel, the adaptation still succeeds in suggesting a community with its complex social gradations: a wonderfully-orchestrated perspective shift presents the gentry snobbily surveying the mourners at the Featherstone funeral before swiftly transforming the cast into the observed congregation itself.  

The evening is full of such swift, surprising transitions, as Beevers’s versatile cast continue to play together wonderfully well, popping out epigrammatic statements with aplomb, inhabiting a new character with the mere donning of a jacket. Lucy Tregear and Michael Lumsden come to the fore with their effective doublling as Ma and Pa Vincey and Ma and Pa Garth, revealing two contrasting approaches to life and to parenting that have influenced their children’s attitudes. Christopher Naylor fleshes out his already-sympathetic vicar Farebrother as he presents him making a difficult sacrifice. Ben Lambert renders the spoilt Fred’s post-studies lack of direction all-too recognisable and Daisy Ashford makes Mary an epitome of forthright good sense that’s never sentimentalised. And Jamie Newall – the pursed Casaubon of Dorothea’s Story – plays the ailing Featherstone with delicious relish.  

“One is constantly wondering what kind of life others lead and how they take things” ponders Dorothea at one point. The cumulative effect of these three marvellous productions is to give an inclusive sense of “others’ lives”: of the interaction of “ordinary” characters of highly contrasting temperaments, whose actions impact upon each other in ways both trivial and profound, as the evening wends its way, once more, to Eliot’s concluding tribute to “the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” Playful but deep, absorbing but not ponderous, this Trilogy is another significant achievement for the Orange Tree and adds up to eight and a half hours exceedingly well spent.  

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