DIRECTOR Paul Clarkson has chosen the inventive and challenging Helen Edmundson version of The Mill on the Floss, made for Shared Experience, for the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School summer tour.
As with all Shared Experience productions, the story is told on many levels, transporting the audience into the mind of heroine Maggie Tulliver as the narrative unfolds.
Regarded as the most autobiographical of George Eliot’s novels, it charts Maggie’s life and conflicts, from a childhood with her beloved father and older brother through a confused adolesence sometimes overtaken by the teachings of Thomas a Kempis to a passionate young adulthood in conflict with her family. Maggie was obsessed with learning and reading, throwing herself into new ideas and activities as her slower and more reserved brother Tom plodded on.
Her father lost the family property and fortune to his lifelong enemy Wakem, so when Maggie befriended Wakem’s sensitive and hunchbacked son Philip, the only result can be misery.
The 14-strong cast swap roles on alternate nights, giving each student a chance to play a leading role in the ensemble piece. At South Petherton we saw Heidi Parsons (pictured above with Finn Stewart Hayman) as the young and tempestuous Maggie, joined as the story progresses by her devout self (Holly Carpenter) and the adult Maggie (Rosie Taylor Ritson), throughout whose lives the youngest Maggie retains a hold.
Amukelani Matsena is a poignantly devoted Phillip, and Will Fletcher a charismatically selfish Stephen Guest. Finn Stewart Hayman was the stolid Tom, always trying to do the “right thing,” and Charlie Layburn vividly contrasted the roles of kindly Bob and arrogant Wakem.
The swirling design, with the water of the Floss never far from the action, depends on an energetically choreographed approach to the story, and Michelle Gaskell directed the movement for this skillful young company, whose singing (directed by Pamela Rudge) was also a feature of the production.
My only criticism is that the voices, some of the female ones particularly, were at times so high-pitched and strident as to be inaudible (a problem noted by many of the audience). I understand that every venue of the tour is different and presents its own challenges, but there is a world of difference between projecting and shouting, and when the production is given in a convincingly north eastern accent, it makes audibility all the more important. I’m sure the lesson will have been learned at this first stop on the tour, which continues until 5th July.
Photographs by Craig Fuller.