Where waters run deep
By Rebecca Waese
Optic Nerve’s The Mill on the Floss directed by Tanya Gerstle, delivers a thrilling, sensual, and physically-charged performance about Maggie Tulliver, who, growing up in a provincial town in nineteenth-century England, learns that her choices in life are damningly limited by her gender.
In this intelligent and immersive production, originally adapted by Helen Edmundson for Shared Experience Theatre Company from George Eliot’s novel, three actors play Maggie at different stages in her life in a moving embodiment of how we experience inner conflict when faced with making heart-breaking decisions. Young Maggie, played by Maddie Nunn with joy and irreverence, supports the more somber second Maggie, hauntingly portrayed by Zahra Newman, and convinces her to return the affections of her first suitor Philip Wakeham, (Tom Heath), who is the son of the lawyer who has taken over Maggie’s father’s mill. Rosie Lockhart delivers a beautifully tempered yet volatile third evolution of Maggie, who becomes entangled in an impossible love triangle with her cousin’s betrothed, Stephen Guest (George Lingard), and has to choose between respecting her brother’s wishes for her and her own desires that will leave her disowned by her family and a societal outcast.
Gerstle’s Pulse style of actor training, where actors follow physical and emotional impulses to give body to the text, allows for some unforgettable ensemble moments. Eight actors commit fully to their 17 roles and create a moving experience of a flood using only chairs and an upturned table in a simple yet evocative light and soundscape. The ghost of a drowned witch emerges from an unseen crevice under the stage to try and drown Maggie in the river. The scenes with the Aunties who selfishly expose their self-interest when Mrs Tulliver (Luisa Hastings Edge) and Mr Tulliver (James O’Connell) lose everything reveal the underside of family divided by class. Music enhances the production and Zahra Newman’s powerful instrument of a voice, worth the price of admission alone, sings a primal call-to-arms of the pain of women who centuries earlier were drowned for being witches.
This adaptation maintains a strong connection to the novel, written in 1860 by Mary Ann Evans under the male pseudonym George Eliot, for its unflinching and unnervingly contemporary portrait of the stirring passions of a young woman bound by the social forces of her time. There is less focus on Tom, Maggie’s brother (Grant Cartwright) than in the novel although his over-physical relationship with Maggie resonates with the intense childhood bond George Eliot describes having with her brother before they were estranged in her autobiographical poem “Brother and Sister.” The weakest part comes in the love affair between third Maggie and Stephen Guest where the affair feels somewhat rushed and not as consuming as it could be if Lingard were able to bring a deeper maturity to the role.
Mill on the Floss injects the past into the contemporary with its rousing themes of how women react passionately against being held down in society. In the theatre foyer, a collage depicting fifteenth-century witch trials and Eddie McGuire’s recent comments about how he would pay to see his female colleague’s head held under a pool of iced water, tracks a chilling legacy that makes Maggie’s struggles even more vital today. This a triumph you do not want to miss; it’s history in the making.
Date: 28 Jul 2016 – 13 Aug 2016. Extra show added Tues Aug 9.
Time: Tues to Sat at 7:30pm and 1:30pm on Sat 6, Sat 13 Aug
Price: $35 Full / $26 Conc, Under 30, Groups 8+ /$20 Preview [plus $2.50 booking fee per ticket]
Presented by: Theatre Works and Optic Nerve
Bookings: (03) 9534 3388
Image by Pia Johnson
Rebecca Waese is a Lecturer in Creative Arts and English at La Trobe University.