7-10th April 2022
Middlemarch A Study of Provincial Life by George Eliot is a masterpiece of fiction with over 90 characters to explore, the novel is an epic study of human society. Beautifully constructed and woven together with skill, the story of the people who live in the fictional town of Middlemarch become real and familiar in the mind. To discover the plan to create a play celebrating the novel in a couple of hours by the theatre company Dash Arts was exciting and at the same time intriguing. How would this be accomplished?
As a contribution to Coventry City of Culture 2021/22, this idea made sense. Coventry being the place where George Eliot grew up, and where she based her town Middlemarch on, firmly places it in the Warwickshire countryside around Coventry and Nuneaton. A cast of hundreds was not possible, so how to portray the town and the main characters? Professional actors were engaged to carry the story and plot, but cleverly engaging volunteers from the Coventry area to convey, not only the atmosphere of Coventry, but also to become stewards. Stewarding was imperative as the decision to engage in a progression around key places in the novel was integral to the event. Four venues in close proximity were chosen to represent the Vincy family living room, the bank, the Town Hall and the Green Dragon pub. Josephine Burton, Director and co-writer and Ruth Livesey, co-writer cleverly designed the narrative to make sense in whichever venue the audience found themselves. Encouraged to move around between venues was at first a little confusing as everyone fears missing out, but it worked well. Characters suggested ways of following the narrative as a journalist for Will Ladislaw’s newspaper The Pioneer, as a medical student following Dr Tertius Lydgate on his rounds, all as natural invitations or suggestions from the characters. Rosamund Vincy took us to the bank, the auction at the Town Hall and the women’s craft circle, passing the nefarious Raffles drunk and singing on a bench on the way. The play, entitled The Great Middlemarch Mystery, informed that a murder had happened and we, the audience were to sleuth out the victim and culprit. A bold decision to frame the story within the murder, an important part of the George Eliot novel, but by no means the main thrust of the book. It was a success, finding out the characters and possible motives did run true to the original work, and like the book, no real conclusion was drawn, but the consequences of the death spread far and wide in the community.
Middlemarch was a very successful television series written by Andrew Davies in 1994, with a very youthful Rufus Sewell as Will Ladislaw. It is a period piece that still stands up to viewing today. The period costume and setting does not date and the nature of George Eliot’s observations of human nature are still relevant. Eliot was writing in 1871-72, but based her story in 1832, 40 years before, and it was this fact that opened the seemingly intransigent timescale for Dash Arts. Period dramas are costly to stage and mostly time is etched in the dialogue, but Eliot’s universal observations allowed for most of the dialogue and text to be accessible with ease today. Today we have online communications which would skew the murder story if set currently, subverting some of the secrecy required to cover up some character’s past lives. So where do we find ourselves 40 years before? 1982! 100 years later than when the original text was, but with the infancy of the worldwide web and no widespread use of mobile phones this proved to be a good era to set this production.
Set design and attention to the detail required to set the show in 1982 was well thought through. The Vincy living room had an old TV, telephone and stacked Hi Fi system. The script allowed for mentions of the Falklands War, the new Intercity links to Coventry, the planned visit of the Pope, and in Bulstrode’s Bank the trend in extreme interest rates and the debate around Mutual Societies. The newspapers were dealing with the new technology and the car industry, a mainstay for Coventry, was in serious decline. John Raffles, played by George Beach, taking his look from Del Boy, Only Fools and Horses in double denim and a sheepskin jacket, sprawling in a drunken stupor on the bench was singing Don’t You Want Me Baby; which won Best Breakthrough Act Brit Award for the Human League in 1982. It was a nostalgic trip down the 1980s memory lane for many.
The characters chosen to relate the story were sympathetic to the Eliot versions. Dr Tertius Lydgate, played by Tom Gordon, was suitably earnest and proud, considering the new way the right way and not recognising he was alienating himself from the inhabitants of Middlemarch. The scene in the Vincy’s house where he is blindsided by the beautiful and charming Rosamund Vincy, played by Aimee Powell, was beautifully staged, the attraction between them was evident and resolve disappeared from Lydgate’s face as he succumbed to that attraction. The brilliant inclusion of Fred Vincy who never appeared, but was upstairs unwell, proved a useful foil for arranging the doctor to be at the house.
Scenes in The Green Dragon pub were not as expected. The arrangement to be in a real pub apparently was not successful and a temporary pub was fabricated above the bank. Mrs Dollop, Amanda Hurwitz, tried to hold court as the landlady, but the stretched space of the pub did not feel quite as welcoming as it might have been. Attempts to draw the audience in with invitations to play darts did not hit the mark and fell on hard ground. A great pity that a real pint was not available, it would have loosened up the audience and we might have felt less like observers and joined in with swapping gossip about the Vincys, and the Bulstrodes, to work out both the murder victim and perpetrator.
Andrew Cullum, playing Nicholas Bulstrode was brilliant. He portrayed the banker with assurance, thoughtfulness and aplomb. I really thought he was going to give me a savings account at 11.8% interest…those were the days! I am sure he remembered our previous encounter in the bank on the Thursday when I found myself in the same position on the Saturday and he offered me the deal. The natural conversation and ad-libbing required to make the encounter feel real was remarkable. He commanded the space as bank manager, but when Raffles confronted him, the change in his demeanour alerted us to the potential devastation within Middlemarch society. Keeping face and dealing with an inner turmoil was delivered with emotional intuition.
Rosamund Vincy, played by Aimee Powell, and her mother, Lucy Vincy, played by Deborah Tracey, brought the domestic living room to life, offering refreshments and snippets of local news, inviting us to sit in their home as if expected visitors improvising and riffing off participants’ comments. Their house was the front room belonging to the Dean of Coventry Cathedral, which made me smile as we were standing next to each other as the scene unfolded. We were offered cake and Rosamund sang for us dressed in clothes that best evoked the 1980s, the small white Peter Pan collar, wide shouldered purple coat and red beret were perfect. Feeling a little pleased that a couple of the salvaged theatre costumes I had found with Siena Tone, Costume Assistant, were used in the production it may actually have been easier to make 19th century period dress! It seems the 1980s is difficult to source in costume at least. It was in the Vinci’s home the orchestration of visits by the doctor and how the story was unfolding elsewhere became clear. Discreet radio communication helped to ease the appearances and keep the continuity flowing. Dr Lydgate must have been so out of breath on his rounds, he seemed to be required at many places at many different times. A Dash Art indeed!
Will Ladislaw, played by Ryan Van Champion, was apparently a late addition to the cast. Josephine Burton suggested he was needed to cement the events together through reporting with The Pioneer, his innovative paper to rival the established The Trumpet, the 1980s changes in the newspaper industry with the introduction of online production did not go unobserved. Editions of The Pioneer were available at the venues, with updates appearing throughout the evening reporting rumour and local news as it happened, which added an authenticity to the performance.
A notable omission from this interpretation of the George Eliot novel was the heroine Dorothea Brooke. Many of the audience were surprised she was not there, but her importance in the mysterious death, the focus of Dash Arts, is not evident. Some critics object to Dorothea’s sanctimonious and pious attitude and congratulate Dash Arts for having the audacity to remove her. She was not missed!
Sometimes during the performance the narrative was not clear, mostly it could be caught at another venue, but if you missed something key, it was a tad confusing. Maybe staying a little longer in each venue would have worked better. The last scene where everyone reconvened at the Town Hall, Drapers Hall in fact, a beautifully restored 18th century building with ornate ceilings and pillars. Some audience members were entrusted with important documents as key evidence to present when all was revealed, and the story was satisfactorily concluded. Bulstrode again held the room as he powerfully explained his circumstances and, as he fell from grace, his wife Harriet Bulstrode, Joan Walker, demanded he held his head high and they left with pride at least intact. Raffles death is never accounted for as a murder, just unexplained with suspicion on both Lydgate and Bulstrode.
The volunteer Middle People were important to this performance. Playing their parts with enthusiasm, moving the story along both with teasing out information from the audience, and gossiping key facts on the side. They encouraged people to move on physically if the drama required it, suggesting where the best gossip may be had and pointing out venues on the map provided. Occasionally the sound let them down as the voices did not carry in Drapers Hall for example and maybe the professional edge was missing, but that held some authenticity to the conceit. Coventry City of Culture hosts also were on hand to make safe passage from one venue to another, especially useful as it was dark around the cathedral at the end of the evening.
Altogether an interesting interpretation of a momentous book, dealt with in an intriguing style. The first night on Thursday was a little ragged and may account for the confusion, but by Saturday the company were in their stride and the confidence was obvious in the delivery. A thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable evening that demanded complete emersion in the story. The triumph is of George Eliot’s vision, her language still held its own today as sections of speech were directly Eliot’s. A confident appraisal of the vagaries of being human and dealing with the ups and downs of relationships and environment. Congratulations to Dash Arts for taking on a task not easily managed, but contracted and coerced into a format that lost none of its original appeal.
Photographs by Karen Parker
Podcast by Dash Arts about The Great Middlemarch Mystery can be found here