Dr Lydgate's story takes the lead in the second part of Geoffrey Beevers' masterful adaptation of Middlemarch. It's a more satisfying tale than part one, where Dorothea's story lost some momentum after the demise of Casaubon. The conclusion of the Doctor's story may be bittersweet, even bathetic, and yet as a whole it is more engaging. This is not least because it is well supported by the story of the banker and absolutist evangelical Bulstrode, a character who is intriguing even at his least sympathetic.
Indeed it's a tightly crafted piece of work throughout as Bulstrode's story only gains prominence after the minor character of Mr Farebrother fades into the background. Mr Farebrother's fortunes effectively counterpoint those of the doctor and it's a sign of how well Beevers' understands the dramatic potential of Eliot's novel, and how carefully he's arranged his script, that he can give early prominence to such an otherwise minor character.
Though the doctor's story can certainly stand on its own, for those who have seen part one, there's further pleasure to be found in seeing scenes re-enacted with a different focus. This is particularly true of the brief encounters between Dr Lydgate (David Ricardo-Pearce) and Dorothea (Georgina Strawson) – where the impression of the doctor's fastidiousness in the earlier version is undercut by freshly revealed snobbery.
Beevers' direction also seems noticeably more assured in this second part. The pacing is more even and there are fewer sections in which Eliot's narration pinballs between multiple voices. When her voice is introduced the impact can be very sharp, as it is at the conclusion of the first act where Niamh Walsh switches abruptly from her version of the weeping Rosamond, to deliver a sharp sardonic 'omniscient' summary of her character's behaviour.
In fact all of the purposed gestures in this second part seem more resonant and considered: actors freeze in the midst of a game of pool to create a wonderful visual metaphor of Lydgate's epiphany of his own ruin, while the deliberate pause when Lydgate passes Rosamond her hunting whip reveals both their first moment of intimacy, and acts as the perfect harbinger of their future marriage. In fact there are so many virtuoso moments – from characters rubbing their hands over imaginary fires, to bailiffs speaking and moving the set around for the next scene and immediately switching characters, to the introduction of a family with each role acted by a single actor who straightens and bends to reflect individuals of each generation – that it would make an excellent primer for anyone considering directing with more characters than actors, and more action than time.
Once again the ensemble cast are pitch perfect. David Ricardo-Pearce as Dr Lydgate is sympathetic even in his moments of self-pity and anger, in a way that captures both his character's decency and weakness. Niamh Walsh is equally excellent as the small-minded and manipulative Rosamond, while Christopher Ettridge gives the most intriguing performance as he moves from gothic to tragic registers as Bulstrode's past catches up with him. Excellent comic support is once again given by Michael Lumsden, Christopher Naylor and Lucy Tregear.
Eliot's purpose in Middlemarch is so wedded to the novelistic form – her liberal humanist morality, qualifying one perspective with another, contrasting conflicting viewpoints and presenting characters not simply in the round but as they develop and change over the course of decades – that turning it into drama still seems outwardly absurd. There are several jarring moments where tension is dissipated by narratorial intervention and summary. And yet in being true to Eliot's priorities, Beevers and his cast have developed numerous ways to express thoughts and ideas rarely encountered in stage plays. The consequence is a quietly brilliant work, and I greatly look forward to part three.