George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss is a semi-autobiographical novel about a young woman’s coming of age. Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) explores the inequalities of the genders that, over a hundred years later, still resonate with heartbreaking urgency.
Helen Edmundon’s adaptation is a sweeping and detailed one, focusing not only on the story of Maggie, but on the experiences of those around her, and the impact of their class and gender on their ability to lead a fulfilling life.
Maggie is played by three actors, which allows for a novelistic level of layers and detail that simply cannot be achieved by one actor. Maddie Nunn is delightfully impassioned and quick as the child Maggie, who years for the independence and education only afforded to her brother Tom. It is a difficult thing for an adult to play a child, but Nunn achieves it with accuracy and nuance, without slipping into cliché.
Zahra Newman is heartbreakingly subdued as the quiet adolescent Maggie who falls in love. Her physicality throughout the play was a highlight, and illuminated the unspoken elements of Maggie’s character with grace.
Rosie Lockhart brings Maggie into adulthood with a blend of the child Maggie’s fierceness and the adolescent Maggie’s melancholy. The interplay between these three actors as they build upon this one character made for the most private and interesting of moments.
Grant Cartwright plays Tom, Maggie’s often abusive older brother, with tortured yet vulnerable masculinity. James O’Connell is compelling as Maggie’s father, and Luisa Hastings Edge finds both humour and weakness in Maggie’s conventional mother.
Tanya Grestle’s direction is clear and articulate. The use of movement to embody Maggie’s inner world is hauntingly beautiful, and the cast’s gorgeous a cappella singing lends to the piece the feeling of a dream. The physicality of this adaptation is what stands out, and it makes for an illuminating contrast in a story about the oppression of a young woman.
The sparse set, costume lighting allows for the focus to be pulled heavily towards the performers. While the performances were often compelling, more design elements could have added layers of interest to the piece that would have been very welcome in a two-hours-with-no-interval production.
The Mill on the Floss is theatre with many beautiful elements, and the story is vast and interesting. It was simply too long. There are so many characters and so much story, that either an interval or a trim would have given the audience permission to really immerse themselves in the power of the piece’s imagery, rather than scrambling its way through the last few scenes in a desperate bid to stand up and stretch.
Ultimately, though, The Mill on the Floss is compelling, empathetic theatre driven by women, about women, and there should be more of it.