Immersive show turns Middlemarch into 1980s murder mystery | George Eliot

In a supermarket in Coventry the customers are fighting their fists. Suddenly there was a restless image, and the shock broke the sense of flow in the room. “I need this, Mr. Trumbull,” he said, pointing to the picture on display.

“You know how this works, Mr Ladislaw, it’s an auction,” said the salesman.

If those names sound familiar, it’s because they are well-loved characters from one of the UK’s most famous novels, Middlemarch by George Eliot. The shop is located in Coventry’s Drapers Hall, the plays are performed by local people and professional actors, the town has an audience, and the big crowd seems to be a big factor.

To commemorate 150 years of Eliot completing Middlemarch and Coventry being chosen as a city of culture, five venues in the Midlands city in April will host an immersive theatre, The Great Middlemarch Mystery, which reimagines the story as a murder mystery.

A paper on the mystery appears during a lecture at Warwick University. Photo: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

The audience starts and ends in the same places, but they will make their own journey through the story as they move between places such as the Green Dragon pub, a beautiful Wetherspoon where they can order pints; Mrs Vincy’s beautiful Georgian home; a shop that combines sewing; and a bank where they can withdraw Middlemarch money. At the end, audience members will be invited to share their understanding of the mystery.

“There is drama, entertainment, participation, history and love everywhere. Whichever way you go, it’s impossible to see what’s going on everywhere. You’ll have a completely different experience,” says director and lead author Josephine Burton.

Art Director in practice.
Art Director in practice. Photo: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Burton runs Dash Arts, which specializes in interdisciplinary, interactive productions, and says her work is about creating other worlds for people to see, an artistic skill that Eliot believed she had. master “The audience will climb the platform to the office. They become part of the world, they belong to the show. “

Burton, along with lead researcher Prof Ruth Livesey, adapted the novel to work in five locations and updated it in 1982, a time similar to the universe in which the book was originally set. between 1829 and 1832. The Victorian era, while in the 1980s factories were closing, the Falklands War broke out and Thatcherism changed the political landscape again.

But the dialogue is close to the original, and many of the story’s themes translate as easily today as they did in the 1990s, with a scene like the plague. Covid-19, where a species is infected with a disease. .

Burton is particularly interested in the questions that Middlemarch raises about the role of community, and the double meaning of provincialism in the book as contempt and power. “It’s the community that struggles with change, shows the problem and tries to fix it. This is a real celebration of the community here.”

Rehearsal on location at Coventry Drapers Hall with actresses Amanda Hurwitz as Mrs.  Dollop and Tom Gordon as Dr. Lydgate.
Rehearsal on location at Coventry Drapers Hall with actresses Amanda Hurwitz as Mrs. Dollop and Tom Gordon as Dr. Lydgate. Photo: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Burton said that after Brexit, he was very drawn to the theme of the other in Eliot’s work, represented by Will Ladislaw’s Polish heritage. He believes that the play focuses on the tension between people in a society to change, as Ladislaw wants to record those in power in the story as a newspaper, and those who fear and resist.

There are some minor innovations to address aspects of identity and society that are not seen in Middlemarch, for example, Mrs Vincy is from Jamaica in an interracial marriage.

Burton wanted to make sure that Coventry, near Eliot’s birthplace of Nuneaton and believed to be the inspiration for Middlemarch, played a major role. Many of the performers were locals, who shared memories and photos from the early 1980s, including the growing club scene in the city and films showing the performance.

This allowed Burton to collaborate in rehearsals, where the cast and crew intended to create an atmosphere that he hoped would engage the audience.

In training for the auction floor, they swap stories, reflecting on everything from the speed of shopping and their poker-style mind games, to information gleaned from Antiques Roadshow by Mr Trumbull, played by the unknown Steve Hands. “We want to have fun, connect, play and be together,” Burton said.

This article was amended on 17 March 2022. An earlier version incorrectly stated that George Eliot was born in Coventry, rather than Nuneaton, and added text explaining that Prof Ruth Livesey was the research director for the report. .

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