SILAS MARNER
Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond
Opened 14 April, 1998

Several years ago Geoffrey Beevers adapted and directed a stage version of George Eliot's Adam Bede at the Orange Tree; he now revisits Eliot with a version of Silas Marner, her tale (to reduce it to a simple broth) of wronged weavers, foundling girls and the irresponsible squirearchy.

It is a production clearly conceived from the first with the Orange Tree's in-the-round space and its audience constituency in mind; it maximises its potential appeal by surfing on the seemingly inexhaustible wave of appeal of classic-literature-as-costume-drama, and also creates an illusion of adventurousness in staging by its use of various non-naturalistic tricks. How one receives this arsenal of devices is a matter of personal taste, mood or even whim; I myself was alternately charmed and irritated, apparently simply as the fancy took me.

Beevers has his actors a company of seven recreating entire communities in Eliot's novel whisper key words chorically; since these are usually words such as "despair" and "blasphemy", such sequences may seem unintentionally parodic; similarly, the unison humming and clapping to imitate the sound of Silas's loom is a mite too reminiscent of drama-school "theatre machines". For a couple of brief equestrian scenes, actors bite on riding crops whilst their "riders" stand behind them on benches. The "snow-covered lanes" are dutifully summoned up with a couple of white drapes which moments earlier had been doing service as evening gowns, and the city folk literally faceless are put into gratuitous masks.

However, Beevers and his company tackle well the problem of retaining Eliot's omniscient, almost essayistic narrator's voice by assigning individual lines to players in turn (what might be called "the Nicholas Nickleby strategy" after David Edgar's Dickens adaptation), and, particularly in the second half, the use of doll-puppets becomes quite beguiling; for the childhood of Marner's adopted daughter Eppie, actress Leah Fletcher does not attempt to "be" a three-year-old, but manipulates and gives voice to the innocently smiling rag-doll figure who stands for the girl herself.

Patrick Drury's passing resemblance to campaigning journalist Paul Foot is rather disconcerting, but he rumbles and abrades nicely through thirty years of Silas's life; Brian Hickey as Godfrey Cass seems always to be the victim of circumstance, yet his responses are almost invariably selfish and wrong. Lorna Marshall's simple set offers the necessary maximum flexibility for recreating by turns the weaver's cottage, the big house and the village tavern. Ultimately, the salient question is simply: does the production, over its two hours and forty minutes, faithfully capture the cumulative effect of the novel's chains of incident and commentary? The answer is that it does.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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