Shared Experience lives up to its reputation for deft re-interpretations of literary classics with this stage version of George Eliot's Mill on the Floss, adapted by Helen Edmundson. The Victorian novel caused a sensation when it was published in 1860, not just for the gender of its author (real name: Mary Ann Evans), but also for its premise that a woman should strive for an education and the trappings it afforded.
The story of Mill on the Floss's Maggie Tulliver is a highly autobiographical one. Like Maggie, Evans/Eliot was a precocious girl whose less intelligent brother, by dent of his sex, received the coveted tuition. Also like Maggie, Evans/Eliot harboured a romance that generated social consternation and resulted in a deep family rift. Unlike in the novel, however, she was able to overcome these hurdles. Maggie is not so lucky, and upon her are visited all the tragedies that follow from such Victorian strictures.
In the play, sensitively directed by Nancy Meckler and Polly Teale, we're confronted with three Maggies. First Maggie (a rambunctious Pauline Turner) is the inquisitive, headstrong child; Second Maggie (Jessica Lloyd) finds solace in religion and self-denial; and Third Maggie (Caroline Faber) is the adult woman tortured by her desires and duties. As our heroine resignedly slips into a different stage of her unsatisfying life, a new actress takes over until all three are present on the stage, battling for dominance.
But it is a battle tinged with a sense of doom. In the world of the play, an independent woman is viewed as a witch and Maggie is dogged accordingly. The test administered on suspected witches - a drowning ritual, evoked by Bunny Christie's piered set and Chris Davey's clever waves of lighting - signifies Maggie's inner turmoil from the opening scenes until the real floodwaters bring things to an inevitable end.
The eight-strong cast are uniformly excellent and all superbly adept at bringing distinction to two or three characters apiece. Amongst the men in Maggie's life, Michael Matus as the crippled Philip Wakem is a model of shy but unwavering affection, while the romantic sparks ignite powerfully between Faber's Third Maggie and Joseph Millson's dapper Stephen Guest. There's able support, too, from Hilary Maclean playing both Mrs Tulliver and the wronged Lucy.
If you leave the theatre and head straight to Waterstone's to buy a copy of the novel of Mill on the Floss for further contemplation on the themes it raises, you won't be alone. From page to stage and back again. Mary Ann Evans would have been pleased.