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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Middlemarch Trilogy
Orange Tree Theatre Winter 2013-2014

Geoffrey Beevers has dramatised George Eliot's 1871 novel as a trilogy of full-length plays, not in the form of sequels, but by stripping out the novel's three concurrent plot lines and focussing on each in turn. Thus characters and even events that are central to one play may reappear as incidental background in another. The plays open at two week intervals and then play in repertory.  Scroll down for separate reviews of each play.

Middlemarch I: Dorothea's Story

The first to appear, Dorothea's Story, presents what most who know the novel will remember as its central plot. Idealistic and somewhat nave young Dorothea Brooke is drawn to older scholar Mr. Casaubon through reverence for his wisdom and seriousness of mind. 

But once they marry, she realises that he is large of ego, narrow of mind, small of soul and terminally boring. Meanwhile Will Ladislaw, a young relative of his, is more obviously Dorothea's soulmate, though it takes them the length of the novel to realise that. 

Geoffrey Beevers' dramatisation plays smoothly, if a bit long-windedly, and Beevers directs with inventiveness and clarity. 

His primary device for translating novel into play is borrowed from the RSC's classic retelling of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, necessary bits of narration provided by the cast, usually passed around one sentence at a time, while the characters themselves frequently describe their feelings in the third-person voice of a narrator (e.g., Dorothea might pause in mid-conversation to say something like 'Dorothea was a bit surprised by this' and then return to the dialogue). 

The device is an effective one, and is particularly valuable in bringing out Eliot's occasionally ironic or comic view of her characters. 

The limits of this dramatisation are almost entirely George Eliot's. Middlemarch is a long novel, and even with its subplots stripped away, it takes its time telling its story in a way that is theatrically counterproductive – that is to say, the more successful adaptor Beevers is in capturing Eliot's voice, the more the play drags. 

The first half of the nearly three-hour dramatisation consists essentially of Dorothea facing the fact that Casaubon is a loser, while the second half watches her and Will as they repeatedly and almost determinedly misinterpret each other's signals and stay out of sync with each other in the extended process of figuring out that they're in love. 

That we stick it out is largely a tribute to the skill and attractiveness of the cast. Georgina Strawson, who can say more with her eyes than many actresses with reams of dialogue, convinces us immediately of Dorothea's intelligence and almost childlike wonder at the prospect of growing and learning at Casaubon's side, and then lets us watch as her spirit is first broken and then determinedly rebuilt by that same intelligence and determination to grow. 

Jamie Newall lets us see all of Casaubon's failings and pettiness without falling into the trap of making him a stock villain, and Ben Lambert keeps Will attractive even as the plot relegates him to stumbling around the edges of the action for so long. 

A solid supporting cast, some of whom will come to the fore in the other parts of the trilogy, includes Christopher Ettridge, David Ricardo-Pearce and Niamh Walsh.

Middlemarch II: The Doctor's Story

The second of Geoffrey Beevers' dramatisations from George Eliot's novel goes back to the beginning and follows a different plot line, the experience of the village's new doctor. 

A young man with high ambitions and advanced ideas – he has a new-fangled gadget called a steth-o-scope and actually believes someone dying of alcohol poisoning shouldn't be given brandy – he is welcomed warily by the villagers and then worsens his position by accepting the patronage of an unpopular businessman, getting caught up in village politics and, when the businessman's shady past is exposed, finding his reputation and livelihood tarred by the same brush. 

But the real centre of his drama lies in his falling in love with and marrying the mayor's daughter, a spoiled and selfish ninny incapable of thinking beyond her immediate whims, who quickly puts him deeply in debt and then blames him for failing to provide. 

Without needing a spoiler alert, let me just say that the arc of his adventure is downward and then back up somewhat, and that its resolution has a surprisingly modern feel to it, as what passes for a happy ending is more an accommodation with reality than a triumph over it. 

As in the first play, Beevers skilfully employs the Nicholas Nickleby method of incorporating narration and authorial commentary into the drama by having a chorus and sometimes the characters themselves interject observations in mid-dialogue. 

You may be a little more aware here of the device being used wittily, as when David Ricardo-Pearce as the doctor comments about himself  'He had no thought of marriage,' with Niamh Walsh as the mayor's daughter interjecting 'as yet' in mid-sentence. 

As with Dorothea's Story, the play is overlong at nearly three hours, and Geoffrey Beeevers might have fought harder against the temptation to include absolutely everything from the novel – what play as extended digressions on the businessman's troubles and downfall could easily have been truncated. 

As promised, this play stands alone and could be seen before, after or without the first, though the identities, relationships and back stories of some secondary characters would be less clear without knowing Dorothea's Story. 

Serving as his own director, Geoffrey Beevers keeps things flowing through a cinematic cross-cutting of short scenes, incorporating minimal set changes into the behaviour of the characters and adeptly meeting the special needs of theatre-in-the-round by never leaving anyone planted in one spot too long. 

David Ricardo-Pearce captures the honour, sincerity and emotional confusion of the man who actually loves his very unlovable wife, though he misses a bit of the idealist's otherworldliness that leaves him out of his depth in the world of village factions and gossip. 

Niamh Walsh succeeds admirably in making you want to throttle the irritatingly self-centred wife but is then stuck with the challenge of winning back enough sympathy to make her seem worthy of the man. 

Christopher Ettridge as the businessman can't fully overcome our sense that his subplot is taking attention away from the main action rather than serving it, and there is nice support from Liz Crowther, Christopher Naylor, Georgina Strawson and the rest of the cast, most playing several roles each, sometimes in conversations with themselves.

Middlemarch III: Fred & Mary

Geoffrey Beevers' remarkable adaptation of George Eliot's novel comes to a thoroughly satisfying close as it follows one more subplot from beginning to end. If Fred & Mary seems a bit thinner in texture, that's only by the high standards of its predecessors and because this strand of the story is more character- than plot-driven. 

Fred Vincy, son of the town mayor and brother of the doctor's wife, has been spoiled by his parents so that he is a high-living idler, hoping for a large inheritance from a rich uncle that will allow him to live as a country squire.

He loves Mary Garth, who loves him but has the good sense to realise he won't be husband material until he learns to stand on his own two feet and find the satisfactions of good honest hard work. And so the play and Mary bide their time while Fred exhausts all hopes of avoiding work and grows up. 

It's a simple story, almost fable-like in its archetypes, and it is much to the credit of novelist, playwright and actors that both Fred and Mary rise above clich to become warm and sympathetic characters. 

Ben Lambert, who played the somewhat similar Will Ladislaw back in Dorothea's Story, makes Fred so clearly good-hearted and likeable that we forgive him his immaturity and wait patiently with the faith that he will eventually rise to be worthy of Mary. 

And Daisy Ashford (secondary roles in the previous plays) saves Mary from Jane Eyre-ish blandness by making the most of her quick wit and evident intelligence. 

The amiable vicar played by Christopher Naylor plays a larger role here than before, as the clergyman also admires Mary but chivalrously defers to Fred's greater claim. And while multiple doubling of roles has been characteristic of the trilogy throughout, director Beevers adds a layer of theatrical wit by having both Fred's parents and Mary's played by the same couple, allowing Michael Lumsden and Lucy Tregear to display their admirable versatility. 

All three plays can stand alone, though I can't imagine many better ways to spend a day than with one of the scheduled trilogy marathons. If you do see them on separate evenings, I wouldn't begin with this one, just because it has more minor plot elements and subsidiary characters who only make full sense if you know the rest of their stories from the other two plays.

In all, this trilogy is an extraordinary accomplishment, worthy of comparison to the RSC's legendary Nicholas Nickleby of three decades ago, and the fact that it is the product of a small suburban theatre and not the National Theatre would be unbelievable had we not become accustomed to the Orange Tree punching way above its weight and putting its larger rivals to shame. 

It is certainly a fitting tribute to founding Artistic Director Sam Walters as he approaches retirement after 43 years of leading the Orange Tree.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Middlemarch - Orange Tree Theatre 2013 

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