Last night I saw Arthur and George at Birmingham Rep. Based on the novel by Julian Barnes and adapted for theatre by David Edgar, the play was noted as one of the theatrical events of the year by both The Times and The Guardian in their arts round-up for 2010. The plot follows Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, as he attempts to absolve an Anglo-Indian solicitor, George Edalji, of a series of crimes, in 1903. Of course, it’s difficult not to see Conan Doyle as a prototype for his fictional detective, but throughout the play it’s evident that he’s sick to death of his own creation, which is a hint not to see the play itself in terms of a detective drama.
Instead, it’s nuanced, and leans towards other ways of seeing: for example, while Doyle, and his sidekick Woods, begin to conduct the case as if they were Holmes and Watson, it becomes clear that Holmes’s methods are only for fictional cases and don’t work for real-life situations. George is unhappy with the high-handed way Doyle treats his situation, attempting to fight injustice, to “right a terrible wrong” and expose the class and race prejudice of the police force who prosecuted Edalji; George, however, just wants his job back. Though the plot is absorbing and moves forward well, the themes and sub-texts of the book are developed too; eventually, the plot becomes almost secondary to these, and if one were to be seduced by the idea that Conan Doyle equals Sherlock Holmes, the outcome might be disappointing, but by the end, other issues rather than “solving a mystery” have taken precedence. IN many ways, it’s all about life versus fiction, and life wins.