Writer: George Eliot
Adaptors: Josephine Burton and Ruth Livesey
Director: Josephine Burton
George Eliot’s Middlemarch was originally published in instalments in 1871 and 1872, although it was set some forty years earlier. It wove several narratives together with references to real events and themes of the time – political reform, development of the railways, progress in medicine. Above all, it looks at a community responding to change. While its initial reception was mixed, it’s now regarded as Eliot’s best work.
At the time of writing Middlemarch, Eliot was living in Nuneaton, and the parallels between Middlemarch and the Coventry of the time are striking, leading to the acceptance that Middlemarch is based on Coventry; it is apposite, therefore, that a version of Middlemarch should be produced during Coventry’s tenure as Year of Culture 2021. For this immersive piece, Dash Arts has taken some of the themes and characters from Middlemarch and created a new drama, set, like the book, some forty years in the past, in 1982 and 1983. And like the book, there are references to contemporary events – the pregnancy of Diana with William, the Falklands conflict, for example – although they do appear to be shoe-horned in and don’t really add to the narrative. There are also some anachronisms – one might expect a 1980s doctor to place his trust in more than just good ventilation and nursing, for example, important as those both are in treatment.
And there is change afoot in Middlemarch: the Middlemarch Improvement Association has been set up to improve life in the provincial town. Banker Nicholas Bulstrode, a pious man, introduces plans in the Town Hall for a new hospital, railway station and shopping centre. Allied to Bulstrode are newcomers Dr Tertius Lydgate, a pompous self-important man who is to be physician-in-chief and who brings new ideas in medicine from the continent; and Will Ladislaw, an idealistic dreamer who is to edit the local newspaper, The Pioneer. Also present is the mayoress, Lucy Vincy and her vain daughter, Rosamond. After the introduction and speeches, we’re invited to visit one or more locations: there’s the bank, where Mr Bulstrode is in charge, the Green Dragon, with Mrs Dollop, the loquacious landlady, or maybe the Pioneer office with Will. One can visit the home of the mayor or shadow the doctor. Or it’s possible to wander between the locations, all a fairly short walk from Middlemarch Town Hall. What follows is a series of interactions set over the following year, some scripted, others more improvisational, during which we learn more of the characters and their backgrounds. There is, of course, always the concern that one might make a poor choice and miss something important, however, it becomes clear that if one doesn’t observe an interaction directly in one venue, then it will at least be reported in the others.
Ultimately, secrets are uncovered, careers and reputations made or ruined and at least one suspicious death occurs. In a final meeting at the Town Hall, the various threads are drawn together.
The principal cast is comprised of professional actors, with supporting roles, the ‘Middlepeople’, being played by community participants. And it’s immediately apparent that the professional cast members are mostly at home improvising as necessary around a script, but that the Middlepeople find that much more challenging, with some issues of audibility at times. The need to move between different locations in the city does impact the pace of the piece and it feels somewhat pedestrian as a result. Nevertheless, the locations are well chosen and dressed to fit in with the period in which they’re set.
The Great Middlemarch Mystery, like the curate’s egg, is good in parts. The scripted interactions work well and the whole is well organised to dripfeed the story to the participants with a generally satisfying denouement. But it does feel a bit long and there’s the feeling that it maybe could be a little tighter, but overall, a worthwhile addition to the Middlemarch canon.
Runs Until 10 April 2022