Theatre-going book lovers have three wonderful novels they should be reading over the next two or three months, in anticipation of forthcoming stagings at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon and The Orange Tree, Richmond.
Over the years, many books and films have been successfully or otherwise adapted for the theatre. As long as we remember that, in a different medium, the story becomes a different work of art, standing or falling on its own artistic merits, then we can enjoy both versions. This autumn, the enterprising and intimate theatre-in-the-round, the Orange Tree in Richmond is staging a trilogy of plays adapted from Middlemarch by George Eliot; ‘Dorothea’s Story’, ‘The Doctor’s Story’ and ‘Fred and Mary’ which première in October, November and December respectively. The adaptation is by Geoffrey Beevers who is also directing the season.
Ambitiously, the Orange Tree, under Sam Walters’s artistic direction, is staging not only each separate play but some all-day three-play days. The idea of separating out the strands of the novel which George Eliot wove together makes a great deal of dramatic sense. What the patient reader can adapt to as s/he reads through the book, with its bewitching ironies and occasional voice-of-the-author interjections, would be confusing and distracting in the stricter confines of a couple of hours on stage.
Beevers will tell the story of the saintly Dorothea so sadly let down in her expectations by that dry-as-a-stick Casaubon and how she eventually finds love with Ladislaw; he will recount the adventures, both medical and matrimonial of Dr Lydgate; and he will tell the story of true love between the feckless Fred and the angelic Mary.
So, now is the time to get hold of Middlemarch and (re)read it lovingly. The book and the prose date from the period of the three-volume ‘loose baggy monsters’, in the words of Henry James, who wrote a few of these himself. However, the wit and the intellect of the author and the humanity of the story make for the book’s enduring hold on novel readers. If you do not find time to read the book before seeing the plays, you are almost certain to want to read it afterwards.
Next on the ‘must read again’ list for theatre-going novel readers are the two Tudor novels by Hilary Mantel; Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies charting the rise and rise of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII, which are being adapted for the stage by Mike Poulton for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon, opening in mid-December, and will also be screened around the same time by the BBC in their own adaptation.
Mantel is already hard at work on what will be the third and final volume of this Tudor tale which will take the reader to the death of Thomas Cromwell, central character of all three books. Having won two already for the first two volumes, bookmakers might not give you too long odds on Mantel winning another Man Booker Prize with this third volume, not due to appear in print until next year at the earliest.
How long it will then take both the RSC and the BBC to present it remains to be seen. Such is the complexity of their background stories; as well as the clarity of their language of course; it would make more sense to have read the books first: so this is fair warning. The RSC Box Office is taking bookings for both plays already: my seats are booked for a long weekend next March.