Middlemarch, considered by many to be George Eliot’s masterpiece, is a very long novel, crowded with incident, characters and themes. It is in overall intention an examination of English provincial life just before the Great Reform Act of 1832.
Middlemarch has been adapted twice for TV, but this appears to be its first outing on stage. Geoffrey Beevers, an Orange Tree stalwart and very experienced man of the theatre, has decided to make it manageable by extracting three pairs of lovers and telling their stories from beginning to end. These stories all tell us something about patriarchal domination in the society of the time as well as the rigidity of its class system.
How well this strategy will work out remains to be seen, but Dorothea’s Story gives good grounds for optimism. There are some difficulties. Dorothea Brooke and Will Ladislaw are both rather odd characters. Dorothea has a great deal George Eliot in her. Eliot, better known to her real life associates as Mary Anne Evans, was a blue stocking and an idealist, and she doubtless drew on her own experiences earlier in her life in portraying Dorothea.
Dorothea is, to put it bluntly, a prig, and her priggishness is emphasized by her strong bent for self-sacrifice. Will, who is rather ineffectual, allows her plenty of room to exercise the latter quality. When they meet, Dorothea is already married to an aged clergyman, Casaubon, who is egotistical and self-obsessed. He has no idea that other people have feelings and all he spots in Dorothea is the promise of an unpaid research assistant, amanuensis and doormat.
Some readers of the novel find these two fairly intolerable. What saves both Dorothea and Will from sinking into the morass of true romance is the ghastliness of Casaubon. Georgina Strawson, Ben Lambert and Jamie Newell, respectively, play them for all they are worth. The rest of the very strong cast are equally committed.
One of the surprisingly effective aspects of Beevers’ adaptation is his maintenance of Eliot’s authorial voice as well as those of the characters we see. His principal device, in this regard, is for the many short scenes which make up the action to end with a punch line from one of the characters, who will exit, speaking parts of Eliot’s original authorial comment. These moments are often very funny, and they remind us that Eliot, despite her high seriousness, was a witty writer who, in this novel above all, is passionately aware of the sad comedy of the human condition.
The play runs for almost three hours, and from time to time audiences will be very conscious of its length. And, whether they have read Eliot’s book or not, they may occasionally have the feeling that, despite that length, the adaptation is perforce giving a rather impressionistically hurried account of the original material. I was reminded of one of my teachers at university saying something about the way students, in moments of desperation, leap aboard a passing summary to carry them through.
It is for this related reason, principally, that I feel compelled to confine myself to three stars in this review. But I think most Orange Tree regulars, and many others, will admire the extreme spirit of enterprise evident in almost every moment, and the joie de vivreof the playing and production. The set and sound effects, too, are in the best sense of the word artful. And the riotous scene of an election meeting aroused shouts of laughter. I suspect that I may feel compelled to add more stars as the trilogy proceeds.