Attending a production adapted from a favourite author is a gamble: it can be very enjoyable seeing a familiar work of fiction brought to the stage; or it can be a disappointing anti-climax. Overall, this production meets the former criteria, the adaptation by director Kenneth Robertson rooted firmly in key passages from the novel, remaining faithful to Hardy’s characters and narrative priorities.
Alice Basaral’s set design is simple and effective, avoiding cliché and allowing the cast to make relatively simple alterations to suggest a range of settings. A clean circle, the upstage half steeply raked, amid leaf-strewn green flooring is complemented by projected backdrops, abstractly suggesting Hardy’s Wessex settings against varying skies, rain and even sea and, equally importantly, helping to shape atmosphere. Portable sections of rustic fencing, plain boards and boxes, and a deceptively simple upstage trap allow for generally swift (and I’m sure they’ll become even more assured with repetition) transitions, keeping the episodic action fluent.
A challenge for any student group in performance is that, unless the play is selected specifically for a line-up of characters of corresponding ages, some parts offer greater challenges than do others in terms of the depiction of age and worldly experience. At the heart of Hardy’s fourth published novel – the one that freed him to devote his life to writing – is Bathsheba Everdene: young, thrust early into the responsibilities of farm ownership and management, she grows throughout the narrative, in terms of both her business acumen and, even more absorbingly, her self-awareness and ability to make personal decisions based on shrewd, considerate insights, in her own and others’ interests. Isabella Byford captures, from the outset, the character’s comparative frivolity/naivety, thereafter going a long way toward successfully conveying her character’s development. She remains very engaging throughout, thoughtfully modifying the persona evident according to those characters with whom she interacts at any given point while maintaining a consistently believable core to her character.
Mirrors to Bathsheba’s character, individually fascinating and thought-provoking in their own right, are her three diverse suitors: Gabriel Oak, Farmer Boldwood and Sergeant Troy. Of the three performances here, it is probably the latter who most sustainedly convinces, in no small part, I suspect, due to the greater closeness in age between character and actor, Oscar George Copper. From the outset, the (self-)confounding mixture of pride, ostentation, the love of a challenge – not least where a maiden’s heart is concerned – and genuine love is, scene-by-scene, revealed: all of the scenes in which he appears convincingly display varying facets of a thought-through characterisation.
Most challenging, in terms of playing age, is Farmer Boldwood: significantly, and unlike with Troy, we do not learn his first name, the nomenclature here suggestive of a life lived impersonally – until it is carelessly intruded upon by a young woman more playful than worldly-wise. William James Gorst does well in the role, although I’m not sure to what extent the amount of facial hair helps or works against him. He clearly conveys Boldwood’s social awkwardness, struggle with and susceptibility to long-suppressed emotions, albeit without fully convincing in terms of age.
As Gabriel Oak – the name carefully chosen by Hardy – Chester Wallace also gives a pleasing, studied performance. Certainly, the “Gabriel” element is there in his felicitous, often self-denying characterisation; he also strives, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, for the solidity and inner strength suggested by the surname. In each of his and William James Gorst’s cases, the actor moves, throughout, in the right direction; with a successful first night behind them, I would encourage both to produce more of the same but, from within, increase the conviction. It’s merely a matter of degree (sic) rather than of underlying conception of character.
While these four characters dominate, this is very much an ensemble piece. Hardy’s “Chorus” of Wessex rustics – always more rewarding than mere caricatures – bring a collective and often individualised importance to those scenes, and there are many, in which they feature. This ensemble work is another strength of the adaptation and production, with particularly enjoyable performances from Michael Dresden, principally as Joseph Poorgrass, and Thomas Edward-Grey, principally Matthew Moon. All are good though, the women particularly uniform in the quality of their performances. In this respect, mention must go to Émer Keen whose fatefully lovelorn Fanny Robin does full justice to a less-often seen but absolutely key role. I enjoyed all that she brought to the part and would be happy to see her in an even more challenging role.
Much more contributes to the success of this production: music, provided live by Jasmine Collecott and Jacob Carter; animal puppetry, using the delightful creations of Jess Venn and Olivia Wiblin; dance choreographed by Claire Camble-Hutchins; Paige Gregory’s costume designs; subtly varied lighting by Sarah Bath; Matilda Harbour’s hair and make-up design captures period and location while avoiding the pitfalls of using excessive make-up to suggest greater age, leaving it, rightly, to each actor’s performance to achieve this.
Members of the cast and, for the most part, creative team are students on Arts Degree courses: Acting; Costume and Performance Design; and Make Up for Media and Performance. Their combined efforts make for a thoroughly enjoyable production, certainly one that is deserving of a much bigger audience than that present for its opening night: it was reasonably well attended, doubtless largely made up, I sensed of fellow students, friends and families, but warranted even more. You don’t need to have any such connection to treat yourself to a ticket and go along to enjoy a marvellous tale engagingly told throughout.
Finally, it would be remiss not to mention the fact that, about ten minutes into the opening night, a member of the audience, seated very centrally, was taken ill, necessitating a pause in the performance. I’ve experienced two or three such incidents at professional productions and it is to the credit of all, particularly Isabella Byford and Chester Wallace, that they handled both the break and the resumption in a thoroughly professional manner.
There are three further performances at Poole’s Lighthouse, at 7.30pm on Friday 8 March, and at 2.30pm and 7.30pm on Saturday 9 March. I recommend a visit.