ANYONE who has Thomas Hardy’s classic stories down as rather gloomy reads will be surprised and delighted by Jessica Swale’s adaptation and direction of Far From the Madding Crowd.
The massive old beams of the Watermill merge seamlessly into an ingenious set which, with manipulation by the actors, becomes a variety of backgrounds, even a carriage, for Hardy’s tale of Bathsheba Everdene (Gina Beck), the girl whose chequered love life is the basis of the story.
If the set transports the audience back to her farm in Wessex, Hardy’s fictional county, the nine excellent actors, several of whom play dual roles, bring Bathsheba’s farm to life, whether it is the jolly rustics roaring out songs about nipperkins, shepherd Gabriel Oak (Simon Bubb) delivering a lamb from a very realistic ewe, or the stammering Joseph (Ed Thorpe) trying to propose to Mary Ann (Emma Jerrold).
Having rejected Gabriel, Bathsheba flirts with Boldwood (Matthew Douglas) and then falls for Sergeant Troy (Sam Swainsbury), a rogue who has abandoned Fanny (Lisa Kerr), the mother of his child.
Apart from tragic Fanny, the first half of the play has much that is merry and the actor/musicians accompany the action with music arranged and written by Catherine Jayes. It is mainly violins, expressively played by servant Liddy (Alice Blundell) and farmworker Jan (Ian Harris), that lead the audience into the action; wistful, dramatic or joyous.
The hymn that accompanies Fanny’s funeral in the second half is, by contrast, sombre and moving, and it is in this half, too, that the sad Bathsheba describes her face as ‘having no beauty left in it’.
Hardy’s story was always a glorious look at human life and in this production each actor makes their character so entirely believable that the audience live with them through their joys and sorrows. This is particularly true of Gina Beck, playing Bathsheba as a lively capricious, naive young woman, and Simon Bubb, in a brilliant performance as the steadfast sensible Gabriel Oak, who puts up with such a lot of woe before the final happy ending.
I left this Wessex farm regretfully, determined to re-read Hardy’s story, after a superb evening full of contrasting elements; festivities, tragedy, mistakes and love, so cleverly brought to life by this excellent cast.