Theatre review: The Middlemarch Trilogy at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond

Middlemarch Trilogy Orange TreeThere is always a period of nervous tension when one goes to see an adaptation; especially of a well-loved classic novel like Middlemarch which is being staged over the next three months at the ever-enterprising Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond.  Will the adapted version convey the spirit of the original, even after making allowances for the different medium?  We can all relax.  Geoffrey Beevers’s Middlemarch Trilogy has got off to a tremendous start with the current production of ‘Dorothea’s Story’.

Readers of my earlier blog on the novel will recall that the Middlemarch story has three main strands which interweave throughout the book and are resolved, one way or another very near the end of George Eliot’s long book; (yet not quite as long as the Man Booker Prize winner, The Luminaries which I am currently re-reading to see why I did not pick it myself!)  Beevers has written three plays; ‘Dorothea’s Story’, ‘The Doctor’s Story’ and ‘Fred and Mary’.  The first is currently being performed and will be joined by the second in the middle of November and the third at the beginning of December. They will play in repertory until the end of January.  A limited number of all-day three-play marathons are scheduled over the Christmas holiday period.  Book now to avoid a major disappointment!

The adapter has several problems with Middlemarch.  First, it is a very long book and much of the narrative shows up Eliot’s own wicked sense of humour, her acute and astute powers of observation and her understanding of human nature.  Second, within the space of a novel, the writer can explore different story lines, switching from one to another as the development of the whole progresses.  By contrast, the playwright must condense, boiling off the vapour but retaining all the essences; must show rather than tell to avoid making the exposition stick out awkwardly from the developing narrative.  Third, s/he must make a drama out of it rather than simply a recital of choice extracts.  (I noted especially how Beevers delays telling the audience what jealous Casaubon had done until the most dramatic moment to do so.)  On the strength of ‘Dorothea’s Story’, Geoffrey Beevers has succeeded in all three areas.

The actors are generally all on stage, sitting at the four corners of the Orange Tree’s theatre-in-the-square.  Thus the pace of the action is sustained as scene rapidly follows scene.  Necessary but very brief exposition is spoken by actors from their corners or as they shift the very minimal stage props and, by using almost entirely Eliot’s witty prose and apposite comments, the audience not only follows the story but, right from the start, laughs out loud at the novelist’s ironic sense of humour.  The humour of the book has been perfectly captured: Middlemarch may be long but it is never dull.  Solving the complexity of the novel’s story line has been splendidly achieved by the device of making it into three plays.  Each can be seen on its own and, if necessary, in any order but the ideal sequence would be Dorothea, the Doctor, then Fred & Mary.  Some of the scenes will appear to be repeated in later plays but are witnessed from a different standpoint provoking the attentive Orange Tree audience to notice these subtle changes of perspective.

The actors are served by an excellent script and fast-paced direction and the adaptor is served by a company of enthusiastic actors who double many roles.  Beevers has deliberately given them contrasting roles to play, such as the dry-as-dust Rector of Lowick and the lover-of-life vicar, Mr Featherstone.  Do book soon for this feast of English provincial fun.  Call the Orange Tree Box Office today!

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