My Wordsworth's Classics edition of Middlemarch tips the kitchen scales at a healthy 420 grams. It's an inexpensive edition, without the frippery of an introduction, which diligently crams 45 lines to each thin page. By contrast Michael Frayn's wordy, lengthy, dramatic masterpiece Copenhagen, plucked at random from the shelf, weighs in at a modest 60 grams. Yet with only 39 lines per page were it to adopt the Middlemarch typsetting, we might expect it to weigh in at an equivalent 52 grams — or even an aneroxic 46 grams, if one was inclined to cull the lengthy postscript. In fact, commit a further minor act of bulimic exegesis to remove the generously empty lines between each change of speaker, and the distilled text would clock-in at a featherweight 38 grams of pure literary muscle. And Copenhagen is hardly a short play.
The questions to which I'm of course driving are how can anyone shave 382 grams from Middlemarch to make sure it fits within the parameters of reasonable dramaturgy? Can such a disgorged homunculus work?
Geoffrey Beever's smart decision to split his Middlemarch adaptation into a trilogy divided by character, rather than chronology, allows each play the benefit of a central protagonist and a natural conclusion. After Dorothea, Dr Lydgate and Mary Garth's stories will be the respective tales behind parts two and three, and both will premiere with the same cast before the new year. It means audiences can view them in any order and not feel bereft if they miss one out.
Not that fans of Eliot will want to miss any of the trilogy on the evidence of its first instalment. Given the metaphorical weight of Eliot's source material (alongside the actual) this adaptation has a surprising lightness and humour.
Though the depiction of the unhappy marriage between priggish, naïve Dorothea (played with affecting wide-eyed sympathy by Georgina Strawson) and aging, ascetic rector Casaubon (a cold and wonderfully precise turn from Jamie Newall) gives the first act an effective narrative arc, it is the intrusion of Eliot's omniscient narrator that feels like the true heart of the production. These interventions are shared between the cast, often swapping between sentences from the corners of the stage. They work not only to ease the action seamlessly through innumerable scene changes, helpfully elucidating plot twists and the identity of minor characters, but also to give an insight into the scope of Eliot's ironic and generous vision.
At times the interjections delightfully counterpoint the drama. When we are introduced to Dorothea and Celia (Daisy Ashworth) in the midst of an argument the actors drop out of character to share a line that "Dorothea was considered more intelligent / but Celia was said to have more common sense". At other times it feels like an inspired commentary that broadens our understanding of characters with whom it would otherwise be hard to sympathise. Beever's stated intention to reveal Eliot's humour is fully realised and is the production's great triumph.
The unintended consequence of this focus however is to make much of the drama feel as though it exists to provide a context for the outside voice; at times it felt like a live action talking book or radio drama. Personally I rather enjoyed this though there's no doubt it undermines some of the tension (not least because the commentary, always given in the past tense, has a certain Austen-like archness) and few of the scenes ever quite settle. Once Casaubon departs at the interval and the impediments to Dorothea's happiness switch from directly personal conflicts to struggles related to conventions and class, the level of exposition increases further, which won't be to everyone's taste.
Even so, this is a classy production from a cast who are almost faultless. There are excellent comic turns by Christopher Ettridge, Liz Crowther and Christopher Naylor each of whom inhabit their roles wonderfully well; while both Ben Lambert as Ladislaw and David Ricardo-Peace as Dr Lydgate bring intensity to the tricky roles of differently frustrated idealists.
At nearly three hours long, you may well feel punch-drunk by the conclusion, yet in an age of box set gorging, where more is generally accepted as more, Middlemarch — Dorothea's Story certainly holds its own.