Arthur & George has now ended its run at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, so these remarks can’t act as a recommendation you see the play – although hopefully it will go elsewhere, because you really should. It is, of course, an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s superlative novel – perhaps his finest, and certainly his most humane – and David Edgar has done wonders transforming an inward-looking novel about identity into an engaging murder mystery about English society. The added emphasis the play puts on the questions surrounding the crimes at Great Wyrley provides it with a strong forward momentum, and an added focus on the accused – the eponymous George Edalji, the son of a Parsi vicar – provides a welcome balance to the novel’s defining portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Doyle does remain, inevitably, the play’s central figure, however, and Adrian Lukis was superb in the role: domineering yet vulnerable, he had a child’s enthusiasm for cocking a snook to authority, but the newly moneyed’s fear of rejection and under-achievement. Chris Nayak as George suffered from a part defined primarily by awkwardness and a sort of strained dignity; the moments in which he is called upon to act the role of George’s prosecutor, however, reveal that the stilted element of his performance was part of the direction rather than a limitation of his art. Nevertheless, it’s a choice at odds with the play’s decision to round out George’s role. Since the play begins and ends with him, and is essentially a story about an Asian Briton finding his voice, it is a shame that Edgar so faithfully retains Barnes’s conceit of the strait-jacketed personality.
Nayak’s portrayal works in the context of the production, however, which is dynamic not just thanks to that rollicking crime narrative, but thanks to a revolving central portion of the stage which helps facilitate the many scene changes of the play. Arthur & George could have been a static affair, but in fact it includes shifts from drawing room to pub, hotel lobby to country field, which are wholly convincing and entertaining to boot. Not only that, but the manner in which Edgar’s canny script – in which scenes in disparate locations take place on stage simultaneously, and flashbacks exist concurrently with flashforwards – is presented on stage without confusion. The supporting cast were also uniformly excellent, and – crucially for any revival – this was not least in part because each character’s role is written with sensitivity and keen observation.
Thus matching its (admittedly less complete) treatment precisely for the different demands of the medium, Arthur & George is no retread of the novel – for instance, it changes the final scene of the book entirely, better to suit its own ends – and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was thoughtful, aware and deceptively complex entertainment. Very nicely done indeed.