PERHAPS Thomas Hardy’s greatest book, Far from the Madding Crowd, entered public awareness via two excellent films in 1967 and 2015, both bringing this story of rural Dorset to vivid life.
You might think that the vast resources of film would frighten off a student production, but Arts University Bournemouth’s brilliant new version, adapted and directed by Kenneth Robertson, on the main Lighthouse stage in Poole for a too-short four performance run, banishes any fear of that. It is performed with all the sweep and panache of the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby and the National Theatre’s Jane Eyre.
For those who don’t know the story (one very confused audience member was expecting an ending in a storm at Stonehenge!) it’s all about Bathsheba Everdene, who unexpectedly inherits her uncle’s farm and determines to run it herself – perhaps the perfect tale for International Women’s Day. Courted by three suitors, she grows up before our eyes.
The films have mostly concentrated on that central story, and ignored the supporting characters so vividly drawn by Hardy. Not Mr Robertson, who ensures that each of his 14-strong cast of student actors has a memorable role. Music is atmospherically interwoven, from the traditional folk songs and dances performed by the cast (with advice from Tim Laycock and Richard Wirdman) to Dido’s Lament and Ombra Mai Fu.
The simple sets – hurdles and tables – swirled on and off the stage, and Jacob Carter and Jasmine Collecott played fiddle, accordion and flute for all those village occasions that pepper Hardy’s works.
The chemistry between Bathsheba and her devoted Gabriel Oak is fundamental to the success of any telling of the story, and here Isabella Byford and Chester Wallace had an electric connection from the start. William James Gorst’s tortured Farmer Boldwood was equally convincing.
Oscar George Copper, as the mercurial and charismatic Sergeant Troy, has all the physical allure needed to turn Bathsheba’s head, and his true love Fanny Robin (Emer Kneen) was particularly pathetic in her mistaken choice of the church for her wedding.
This is ensemble acting of an unusually high standard for student plays, and every moment was sensitively thought through and delivered, right to the final dance. Thomas Hardy would have been delighted, I think.
Photographs by Richard Budd