A sobering reminder of the constraints on women then and now, this lively adaption of a classic novel totally persuades
If a theatrical adaptation of George Eliot’s 1850 semi-autobiographical novel Mill on the Floss – which ends with a flood and the drowning of its central characters – seems an unlikely prospect, it pays to note that it’s being mounted by OpticNerve Performance Group, experts in highly physical and ingenious adaptations of plays from other media. That they’ve managed to assemble an incredibly dynamic and talented cast only increases the likelihood of success.
And so it proves. Effortlessly condensing the novel without losing too much of its emotional or thematic complexity, Helen Edmundson’s adaptation harnesses all the natural strengths of theatre to tell the tragic and profound story of siblings divided by convention and reunited in death.
Maggie Tulliver [played initially by Maddie Nunn] is a feisty young girl who longs for the kind of educational opportunities afforded her older brother Tom [Grant Cartwright]. She befriends a sensitive hunchbacked boy named Phillip [Tom Heath], who falls in love with her, to the grave displeasure of her brother. His resistance to their growing union inadvertently steers her to an even more unacceptable match with a young man, Stephen [George Lingard] who has been courting the Tulliver’s cousin Lucy [Luisa Hastings Edge].
The marriage plot [that favourite of nineteenth century literature, where the novel turns on the question of who the heroine will marry] is here thwarted by the arrival of a massive flooding of the river Floss. This distinctly biblical narrative device is employed as both a tragic and redemptive agent; Tom’s rigidity and Maggie’s defiance are washed clean by the rising water, and they achieve a form of spiritual synergy at the moment of their deaths that is genuinely moving.
If all this sounds hard to stage, it certainly doesn’t feel it under the consummate direction of Tanya Gerstle. The actors’ bodies are brilliantly deployed, constantly breaking into gestural movements that evoke images of drowning, of sexual longing or emotional distress. This is a brave move, because the physical manifestation of themes and subtext can easily become ludicrous; anyone only need catch Bell Shakespeare’s current Othello to see the technique go awry. Here it forms a powerful, churning undercurrent beneath the surface of the play, achieving its apotheosis in the stunning final scenes on the river.
Perhaps the production’s greatest triumph is the casting of three actors to portray the heroine. Nunn brings a winning wide-eyed generosity and pluck to the young Maggie, but she doesn’t disappear when the role is taken over by Zahra Newman. She merely becomes another layer of the character, a direct link to the past that cannot and must not be denied. Newman is stunning as the penitent and stoic Maggie, in full denial of her passions but tormented by their potential. Rosie Lockhart is also superb as the final Maggie, more confident of her place as an outlier, but still wracked by the division of her loyalties. Together, the three actors come close to the scope and depth of character that only a novel can provide.
Every other cast member is beautiful, from Cartwright’s compromised and conflicted Tom to Heath’s heartbreakingly noble Phillip. The a cappella singing has a glorious liturgical quality, enhancing the mood and sense of period.
The design [lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw and costume by Yahav Ron] is stripped back and suggestive, which aids the pacing but does result in a loss of texture. The addition of autumn leaves and musical scores, at one point a large bowl of water, seem an admission of this as much as a solution.
It’s a minor quibble. On the whole, this is a fiendishly good example of one medium enhancing and massaging the genius of another. The feminist thrust of the work is undeniable; George Eliot was, of course, really Mary Ann Evans, only adopting a male pseudonym because men at the time believed women were incapable of creating art. It’s pretty hard to walk away from this play – directed by a woman, adapted by a woman, of a novel written by a woman, and featuring three magnificent performances by women– without wondering why we don’t just hand over the whole practice to the female of the species and reap the subsequent rewards.
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