AN old man thinks of what might have been, regrets what has been. A pretty young actress dreams of success, fame and a career in the theatre far from her dull rural home. A second wife frets, disappointed, ailing, jealous, frustrated. Outside it is bitterly cold.
The characters of A Pure Woman could have walked out of a story by Thomas Hardy. In Christopher Nicholson’s thoughtful, atmospheric and deeply moving novel Winter, they are in fact the 84 year old Thomas Hardy, his second wife Florence, and Gertrude Bugler, the young actress from the Hardy Players who was Tess in the first (amateur) production of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
The scene is set for a story as old as time – older man, young woman, middle-aged neglected wife. Adapted by writer-director Simon Reade, who was a co-artistic director of Bristol Old Vic for some years, A Pure Woman takes this story, with its powerful connections to Dorset and its themes of late-flowering love, the pain of a childless woman, the insecurity of a second wife, the dreams of a talented but naive young woman – and makes a play which is pure gold. Touching, poignant, sometimes chilling, occasionally funny and always involving.
The world premiere took place in the Corn Exchange at Dorchester, where the original Hardy Players’ production of Tess took place in 1924. The atmosphere for the opening night – with a sell-out audience in the old Victorian hall – was full of anticipation. Gertrude Bugler died in 1992; her sister, Norrie Woodhall, who died in 2011, was responsible for the revival of the original drama group as the New Hardy Players. This audience feels a direct connection to the characters.
The pivot of the play is the impending production of Tess of the D’Urbervilles at the Haymarket, one of the greatest and most famous of all the London theatres. Hardy wants Gertrude Bugler to play his most-loved heroine. Her mother may have been the inspiration for the character. He is certainly at least half in love with her.
Over the course of the winter of 1924-25, we watch the three players in this drama of a real-life story of a play and a novel. They give voice to their inner feelings, and Gertrude tells her story to a local Women’s Institute meeting many years after both Florence and Hardy have died.
With the simplest set – chairs, a table and a wintry backdrop with dark fir-trees, a recurring metaphor in the novel and play – the story is performed by a cast of three who could not be bettered.
Tim Hardy plays Thomas Hardy – he could really be the old writer, with his slightly forward-tipping walk, the jaunty hat, the reticent, almost taciturn, manner which gives way to the occasional sweet smile and even rarer delightfully impish humour.
Katy Sobey is Gertrude, a young actress, whose dreams of a career on the stage are bolstered by Hardy’s belief in her talent, who is proud throughout her life to be able to say: “Thomas Hardy was my friend.”
Alison Reid is Florence, the archetypal disappointed wife. But she takes this apparently thankless role and breathes passionate life into it. Even as we wince at her self-pity and shake our heads at her actions, we also feel for her isolation.
A Pure Woman is on a tour, continuing at Dorchester until Sunday 30th September, followed by the Forum Theatre at Malvern on Tuesday 2nd October, the Plough Arts Centre at Great Torrington on Wednesday 3rd, Chipping Norton Theatre on Thursday 4th, Poole Lighthouse on Friday 5th, Lyme Regis Marine Theatre on Saturday 6th, the Broadway Theatre at Letchworth on Tuesday 16th, the Exchange at Sturminster Newton on Wednesday 17th, Winchester Theatre Royal on Thursday 18th and Friday 19th, and Bristol’s 1532 Performing Arts Centre from 24th to 27th October.