In a bustling auction house in Coventry warring bidders are raising their hands. Suddenly a restless figure emerges, and tension breaks the sense of flow in the room. “I must have this one, Mr Trumbull,” he says, pointing at the picture on display.
“You know how this works, Mr Ladislaw, it’s an auction,” reprimands the auctioneer.
If those names sound familiar, that’s because these are much-loved characters from one of the UK’s most celebrated novels, Middlemarch by George Eliot. The auction house is in Coventry’s historic Drapers’ Hall, the characters are played by local people as well as professional actors, the townspeople are audience members, and the dramatic tension just witnessed is a key plot point.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Eliot completing Middlemarch and Coventry’s designation as city of culture, five venues across the Midlands city will in April play host to an immersive theatre production, The Great Middlemarch Mystery, which reimagines the novel as a murder mystery.
The audience start and end at the same points, but will create their own journey through the story as they move between locations such as the Green Dragon pub, an ornate Wetherspoon’s where they can order pints; Mrs Vincy’s elegant Georgian home; a bazaar where there’s knitting and gossiping to join in on; and a bank where they can withdraw Middlemarch currency. At the end, audience members will be invited to share their clues to the mystery.
“There’s drama, fun, participation, narrative and love affairs across all the spaces. Whichever route you take, it will be impossible to know what’s happening everywhere. You’ll have an entirely different experience,” said director and lead writer Josephine Burton.
Burton runs Dash Arts, which specialises in interdisciplinary, interactive productions, and said her work is about creating other worlds for audience members to discover, an artistic skill of which she considers Eliot to be a master. “The audience will step across the threshold to the performance space. They will be part of the world, they are complicit in the show.”
Burton, with lead researcher Prof Ruth Livesey, adapted the novel to work across five spaces and updated it to 1982, a period resembling the world in flux in the novel’s original setting between 1829 and 1832. Middlemarch grappled with industrialisation, the train network and the Victorian era, while in the 1980s factories were closing, the Falklands war was raging and Thatcherism was reshaping the political landscape.
But the dialogue cleaves to the original, and many of the novel’s themes translate as easily to the present day as they do to the 1990s, including a scene that has parallels with the Covid-19 pandemic, in which one character is quarantined with a disease.
Burton is especially interested in the questions Middlemarch raises about the role of community, and the dual meaning of provincialism in the book as both disparaging and empowering. “It’s the community that’s grappling with change, that exposes the problem and tried to mend it. It’s a real celebration of the community here.”
Burton said that in the wake of Brexit she was especially drawn to the theme of the outsider in Eliot’s work, exemplified by Will Ladislaw’s Polish heritage. She feels the play looks at the tension between people in a community who bring about change, such as Ladislaw’s desire to hold those in power to account as a journalist, and those who are frightened and resistant.
There are some small updates to tackle aspects of identity and community unexplored in Middlemarch, for example, Mrs Vincy is from Jamaica in an interracial marriage.
Burton wanted to ensure that Coventry, near Eliot’s birthplace of Nuneaton and which is thought to be the inspiration for Middlemarch, played a key role. Many of the cast are local people, who have shared memories and photographs from the early 1980s, with the city’s thriving club scene and colourful fashions informing the production.
This feeds into Burton’s collaborative approach to rehearsals, in which the cast workshop ideas and improvise an atmosphere she hopes will engage the audience.
At a rehearsal for the auction scene, they exchange anecdotes, reflecting on everything from the speed of auctions and their poker-style mind games, to insights gleaned from Antiques Roadshow by Mr Trumbull, played by homeless local Steve Hands. “We want to make it fun, interactive, playful and collaborative,” said Burton.
This article was amended on 17 March 2022. An earlier version incorrectly stated that George Eliot was born in Coventry, rather than Nuneaton, and text was added to clarify that Prof Ruth Livesey is the lead researcher for the show.