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Review: The Mill on the Floss – Optic Nerve x Theatre Works


Mill on the Floss is a theatrical adaptation by Optic Nerve of the 1860 novel of the same name written by Mary Ann Evans under the pseudonym George Eliot.

Optic Nerves adaption of Mill on the Floss was a theatrical re-telling of the story of Maggie Tulliver. This adaption is much the same as the book, it is set in 19th century England, and it spans across 10-15 years of Maggies life starting when Maggie was 9 years old. This story is about the oppression of Maggies imagination, intelligence and agency as a woman living in a small town.

It is very clear to the audience from the beginning and Maggie is a very smart woman, she loves to read and learn, but it is quickly stifled by her father, telling her she shouldn’t be reading books. Maggie is left to her own imagination while her brother, unwillingly goes to school, something that Maggie dreams of doing.

Later we see a teenage Maggie, and then an older Maggie, perhaps in her early 20s. All throughout the play we see Maggie struggling to find her independence in a world that is unwilling to accommodate her. It is very clear that if it weren’t for the oppressive society that she lives in she would excel in academia and very easily find the independence she had been trying to find all her life, this is contrasted with the story of her brother, who does not wish to go to school and be in command of the family and his own life, essentially is forced into this role in which he is inept and violent. 

Optic Nerves adaption of this play is set in the same period as the book in England. The audience surrounds the action of the play in a U-shape. The set and costume design is minimal, with a long raised stage at the back of the space, with few set and props used through the play, like tables and chairs and lots and lots of books. The costumes for men were all the same, a light cream shirt and pants, and for women light cream singlet and skirt. 

I had a lot of issues with this adaption. Mainly I fail to understand why it has been set in 19th century England. I felt disconnected by the time period and place it was set, I think this play would have had a much more profound impact on me if it had have been adapted to modern Australia. I connected with Maggies struggle as a woman trying to prove her self in a society that disregards her for her gender, that still resonates today, but I struggled to make any deep connection, this may be because I am not a fan of period drama and putting on accents, but I think placing this piece in modern Australia would have made it a lot more potent because we as the audience would have a clearer look at how these themes still resonate are in modern Australia.

There was one point in the play where it seemed to jump forward in time, Maggie was going to a town dance, and the music was like that in a club, I would have enjoyed this element if it was sprinkled all through the play, but the jump to modernity only happened in this one moment which was very jarring and confusing to what was the significance of this, why was the dance modern? I don’t know.

I also struggled with the length of this piece. It was over 2 hours long with no interval, and very little changed in set, mood and energy, which was very exhausting, especially because I hadn’t eaten dinner. For a lot of the time the audience was at least partially lit, which made me feel tense and like I couldn’t move, and I am a very fidgety person so this was a struggle for me.

The piece was extremely text heavy, and hardly shifted in tone and energy the whole way through, and the acting seemed strained and forced, partially because the accents were so think and loud and strong. The dialogue seemed never ending and I felt like there was no room for me to breathe as an audience member because the content just keep coming and coming and a steady pace, I wanted moments of calm and moments of climax which I only seldom and briefly got, there was only one point of climax which was towards the very end when, seemingly out of no where there was a flood, which in terms of plot confused me, was I meant to know this area of England was prone to flooding? What happened to Maggie and the rest of her family and friends after the flood? I’m not sure, and honestly I didn’t make that much of a connection with any of the characters to have an investment in their fate.

Although I could see what the play was trying to do, I feel like it could have achieved more by setting it the 2000s, dropping a lot of the dialogue and cutting the length of the play – this would have also made the play a lot more accessible for those in the audience who at not as knowledgeable about the themes explored in the piece. I feel like this play was made and directed intellectually and not emotionally, and its so important to strike the right balance, otherwise you may be alienating some of your audience members, partially on the topic of feminism and oppression.

Mill of the Floss by Optic Nerve is being performed until August 13th at Theatre Works in St Kilda.

Written by Ebony Beaton

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