Nothing elementary about this one

Arthur & George

Birmingham Rep

****

I HAVE no idea how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spoke but Adrian Lukis (pictured right with the suspected knife) gave us a Doyle who seemed to fit the part admirably - quite capital as Sir Arthur Himself might have said.

He was impetuous, questioning, appeared vague and hesitant as his thought processes ticked over in front of us, yet taking in each detail and computing it in a brain that was always looking for a decisive move, a key clue to solve the puzzle.

There is an Edinburgh burr to his clipped voice along with an impatience and that certain arrogance that the upper classes were afforded.

Doyle, who became so famous, and  mistaken for Sherlock Holmes so often, that he killed off his creation for self preservation, was asked by George Edalji, the son of a Bombay Parsi clergyman and a Scottish mother to help him win a free pardon he had been jailed for mutilating livestock and sending menacing letters.

Chris Nayak's George (seen below) is naive and hardly worldly wise with a belief people cannot dislike you for the colour of your skin unless they know you first. You can't dislike people just because of their colour . . .

The events all surround the turn of the 19th century and this world premiere of David Edgar's play based on the novel by Julian Barnes is somewhat personal to the West Midlands.

George was a Birmingham solicitor and his offices in Newhall Street are no more than five or so minutes brisk walk from the  theatre.

The events took place where his family lived in Great Wyrley in Norton Canes just off the Chester Road, north of Walsall and overlooked these days by a Sainsbury's on a hill on the road to Cannock.

PIVOTAL SCENE

That there was racial prejudice was apparent from the police investigation and interviews and the attitude of the Staffordshire Chief Constable, whose clash with Doyle was the pivotal scene. He saw George as a half-caste where the mixed blood brought civilisation on the one hand and barbarism on the other.

His lawyers were less than impressive at the trial where Edalji lives through the cross examinations in dramatised memories as he relates his tale of woe to Sir Arthur.

Richard Attlee, Simon Coates and Daniel Crowder took on all the other characters with some admirable Walsall accents and the ability to make the cast look much larger rather than people doubling up. Their characters all had a life of their own.

Around the action fluttered the women in the play, Jean Leckie, (Kirsty Hoiles) who was waiting for the recently widowed  Doyle to make her his second wife and George's sister, Maud, who offered support and sympathy while Doyle's long suffering secretary Woodie, played with a hint of humour by William Beck tried, with little success, to rein in his employer's enthusiasm.

LONG COMPLEX NOVEL

Edgar states in the programme notes that it was a challenge to adapt a long complex novel of 500 pages to the stage.

Unless the audience are asked to bring a flask, sandwiches and a sleeping bag the result is always going to be a précis, the bare bones which gives none of the time, or scope, for character development or explanation.

We see how Doyle tried to solve the case as he would if it had been another Sherlock Holmes story, by deduction and supposition, rather than hard facts and evidence - a method that appalled solicitor George who had been convicted on much the same sort of supposition and innuendo and did not want to see another man suffer the same fate. But we were never really sure why Doyle took on the case or indeed why George approached him in the first place. The book is halfway through before the pair meet - the play opens with their first meeting which took place in the lobby of the Charing Cross Hotel.

With the play down to the bare bones of the story flesh is in short supply and we never found out, beyond George wanting to practice law again and Doyle wanting a free pardon for him, what drove the two men. It was almost as if we were shown chapter headings but not allowed to delve into the pages. The result is a story which is complicated but shorn of much of its complexity.

EVOLVING SET

Why for example was Doyle so obsessed with righting what he perceived as a grave miscarriage of justice or George, a man who seemed to have few friends in either Birmingham or Great Wyrley, so sure that racial prejudice could not exist if you did not know the person?

The direction by Rachel Kavanaugh keeps the story flowing on a revolving and constantly evolving set which manages to be hotel lobby, billiard room, pub snug, police station and a wedding reception with a few sticks of furniture and some clever lighting from Tim Mitchell.

Actors walk from one scene to the next as the stage moves beneath them which produces a coherent, continuous plot while a video screen in the distance gives an impression of horses, of trains and all manner of things as vague images to provide atmosphere.

Edgar has to be congratulated on reducing the book to just over two hours and keeping the plot intact but I suspect you will need to read the novel to discover the real story, the whys and wherefores rather than just the stark facts. That being said this is local history revealed before your eyes, fascinating if you know the area and the history is not lost too far in the past - remember George did not die until 1953.

Incidentally this case and Doyle's campaign not only brought a free pardon but it also led directly to the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.

And, as another aside, the threatening and obscene letters, written in the name of the Wyrley Gang continued for another quarter of a century before it was discovered they came from an Enoch Knowles of Wednesbury who was convicted in 1934. To 10-04-10.

Roger Clarke 

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