Far From the Madding Crowd

Thomas Hardy, adapted by Mark Healy
English Touring Theatre in association with Exeter Northcott
Northern Stage, Newcastle, and touring

I confess that when I heard ETT was doing a stage adaptation of a Hardy novel, my heart sank. Not that I don't like Hardy. Quite the opposite, in fact: I am a great fan and, although Madding Crowd isn't my favourite, it does rank high in my pantheon of 19th century novels. No, the reason for my reservations was the remembrance of other stage versions of novels of the period, most of which seemed to be imbued with a sort of twee folksiness with rustic yokels in smocks and straw hats muttering "Oo ah, oo ah" and waving tankards in the air in a manner which, did they have anything in them, would drench everyone within a few yards as they sing jolly folk songs. Oh, and not forgetting long dry passages of narration as the writer tries to cram a novel's worth of incident into the two hours traffic of the stage.

A bit of a caricature, I know, but not too far from the truth.

However the combination of Kate Saxon (The French Lieutenant's Woman UK tour) as director and Georgina Lamb (Macbeth at Chichester and the Gielgud, creative associate of Frantic Assembly) suggested that this production would not fall into this trap, and so it proved.

It's long - not far short of three hours including interval - but so fast-paced that the time passes quickly. Little is left out and yet there is no narration. This is achieved by a combination of taut writing and direction, very effective choreography (which owes not a little to Frantic Assembly), a cleverly designed multi-level set (by Libby Watson) which does away with the need to bring on or take off all but the most basic bits of furniture, and a style of playing which allows, on occasion, two scenes to be played at the same time - which sounds confusing in the telling but isn't in the execution.

It is a play packed with incident, much of which is expressed through stylised but very effective movement - Oak's dog driving his sheep over the cliff, the fire in the hay rick, the saving of the clover-bloated sheep, the storm on the night of Bathsheba and Troy's wedding - with the mood often set by music, song and dance. Here the set plays an important part, helped by Oliver Fenwick's subtle lighting.

The cast of thirteen rise to the challenge of this very physical production and capture the essence of Hardy's characters as we move through the story of Bathsheba Everdene's turbulent life as she struggles to asset her independence in a man's world. Surely one of the first feminist icons in English letters? Rebecca O'Mara plays the flawed heroine who, although loved by the devoted shepherd Gabriel Oak (Phil Cheadle) and the older William Boldwood (Stephen Billington), who experiences the pangs of love for the first time in his life, is dazzled by the glamour of Adam Croasdell's Sergeant Troy. They are supported by a strong ensemble, all of whom impress.

My doubts proved to be unnecessary. This is a fine production which captures the essence of Hardy's novel.

Sheila Connor reviewed this production in Guildford

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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