Monday, 1 August 2016

The Mill on the Floss,, July 30, 2016 ***1/2

By George Eliot, adapted by Helen Edmundson, presented by OpticNerve Performance Group with Theatre Works 
Theatre Works, until Aug 13, 2016
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
Stars: ***1/2
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts Online on Mon Aug 1, 2016 & later in print. KH
Zahra Newman & Grant Cartwright_ photo Pia Johnson
George Eliot’s 19th century novel, The Mill on the Floss, depicts in prose Maggie Tulliver’s narrow life in an English provincial town, but this very physical stage adaptation partners dialogue with abstracted movement to illuminate characters and relationships.

Tanya Gerstle’s direction is deft, imaginative and is clearly developed in collaboration with a talented ensemble of eight, all of whom are comfortable with the incorporation of text with athletic movement, gestural language and a capella singing.

Three actors play Maggie over a period of about 15 years, starting with Maddie Nunn who is charming and impish as the imaginative, 9-year old Maggie who craves freedom and education that is available only to her brother, Tom (Grant Cartwright).

Zahra Newman is compelling as the sadder, introverted, religious adolescent Maggie who represses her independence and naturally passionate, enquiring nature to appease her pragmatic, loving but controlling brother, patriarchal father (James O’Connell) and timid mother (Luisa Hastings Edge).

Rosie Lockhart has a refinement and elegance as the more mature Maggie whose unruly passions resurface after years of obeying her brother’s demand that she not communicate with Phillip (Tom Heath), the educated, sensitive, disabled son of Maggie’s father’s sworn enemy.

Maggie abandons all of her carefully managed self-control when she meets Stephen Guest (George Lingard), her cousin’s suitor, and the foreshadowed tragedy comes to pass.

Having three Maggies of differing ages on stage together provides a nuanced, layered characterisation of this intelligent girl who wrestles with values that favour boys, a situation that echoes that of Mary Ann Evans who wrote under the male pseudonym, George Eliot, in order to be published.

The actors’ evocative physicalisation is impassioned, sometimes expressing love and sensuality and, at others, evoking conflict and violence.

Scenes shift fluidly, with actors playing multiple roles, but Maggie’s struggle in a repressive world is always at the heart of the performance.

Eliot’s original novel covers many years and has a number of narrative threads and characters so it is difficult to cram all of this material into two hours of stage time, so some scenes are not as clear as others, an example being Maggie’s relationship with Stephen which is not fully developed and not quite credible.

Maggie’s frustration at the restrictions imposed upon her dreams and ambitions because she is female may seem out-dated to young women in our modern society, but there are still places where women are oppressed simply for being female. More power to the Maggies of this world.

By Kate Herbert

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