Adrian Lukis, Chris Nayak
The events depicted in Julian Barnes’ Arthur and George took place only moments up the M6 from the Birmingham Reps door, so it makes a fitting venue for this novel of social and legal injustice to brought to the stage.
The Arthur of the title is Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes; Barnes’ novel is an account of real life events in which Doyle himself took on a Holmes-type role in the case of George Edalji.
The two men are from differing worlds; the Edinburgh-born Doyle is an eccentric, highly sociable and driven by instinct.
George, on the other hand, is a quiet, reserved Englishman, of Indian origin, living with his white mother and Parsee father in rural Staffordshire, yet these differences fall away when the two men discuss their unifying love, the pursuit of justice, and their own interpretations of how it should be achieved.
The pair are brought together by a miscarriage of justice that took place three years earlier. Recounting his story to the writer in a London hotel lobby, George explains how his father was a vicar in the small Black Country village of Great Wyrley, and how he himself had set up as a solicitor in Birmingham, when the family started receiving strange letters, sent by ‘Satan’ and ‘Beelzebub’.
The strange events culminated in the brutal slaughter of village farm animals. The local constabulary suspected George and he was arrested after a period of persecution leading to a harrowing court case that saw the young man sentenced to seven years in prison for a crime he had no motivation to commit. Doyle agrees to champion his cause and vows, in true Holmes style, to find out who really committed the atrocity.
Despite David Edgars fine adaptation, it is impossible to recreate such a rich and full novel on stage without crucial elements being left out. Certain key relationships, particularly that between George and his sister Maud, become tools to further the story, devices to smooth things over when the two principal characters are not on stage together. Though Edgar has written some entertaining dialogue, his adaptation lacks the intricate dynamics of the novel.
Doyle’s complex relationship with Jean Leckie, the spirited woman he became involved with during his wifes illness, much to his guilt and shame, is also only hinted at. It is used mainly to illustrate the conflicting motivations that Doyle has for clearing Edalji’s name.
There is considerable warmth between the two leads. Adrian Lukis Arthur is the polar opposite of Chris Nayak’s introverted George. Lukis plays the eccentric Doyle with a gently tongue-in-cheek quality and his comic asides with his man-servant, Woodie, lighten the mood, particularly when referring to the characters similarity to Holmes and Watson at the height of the chase.
The design is very atmospheric, full of smoky billiard rooms and dusty farmhouses; Barret Hodgsons built-in video screen at the rear of the stage comes alive to great effect whenever the vicious crime is referred to, providing a reminder of the brutality of the act that the entire story centres around.
Director Rachel Kavanaugh ensures a careful balance between straight-forward crime thriller and literary adaptation, and though it never recreates the layers of the the novel, this is an absorbing piece of drama in its own right.
Arthur and George will be at the Birmingham Rep until 10 April and then at Nottingham Playhouse from 22 April to 8 May. For further details see NottinghamPlayhouse.co.uk