THERE are plenty of people who will tell you that Thomas Hardy’s novels are depressing, but chances are they haven’t actually read them. Howard Payton knows the novels inside out, particularly Far From The Madding Crowd, which he first read about 50 years ago.
“I was hooked, not only by the description of Gabriel Oak himself, but also his way of life,” he recalls in the programme notes for the New Hardy Players’ production of his adaptation of the book. “This had a profound and enduring effect on me. It certainly influenced much of my subsequent life – lambing my own flock in spring and shearing in early summer always had to taker precedence over my other work in film and photography.”
This background in understanding Hardy’s knowledge of Dorset rural life, has informed Howard’s approach to adapting this story, which is so familiar from both the Julie Christie/Alan Bates/Terence Stamp/Peter Finch film and from the more recent version.
It was important for Howard to find a new way of staging, and he found it by going back to the book and to the seasonal cycles that governed country life for generations – lambing and shearing, ploughing, sowing and harvesting, hiring fairs and Christmas parties.
The result is a triumphant celebration of Hardy’s writing and story-telling, and a fresh new look at this story of an independent young woman and the three men with whom she is involved.
Every character is established – not only the principals but the vast cast of farmworkers and villagers, from shy stammering Joseph Poorgrass and Laban Tall with his bossy wife to sisters Soberness and Temperance Miller, little Cainy Ball, and the ancient Maltster. Whether scything or shearing, drinking cider or singing traditional songs, these were scenes that Hardy would surely have recognised and approved.
The demanding part of Bathsheba Everdene was played by Amelia Chorley, making an impressive appearance in her first leading role, requiring character development that goes from the careless spontaneity of the young girl through passion and heartbreak to an understanding of a deeper love and friendship.
Mike Staddon gave a wonderfully rounded performance as Gabriel Oak, a man of many parts, whose good judgement, common sense and true heart are such a powerful contrast both to the obsessive love of the repressed Farmer Boldwood (well played by Peter Allison) and the shallow flirtatious cruelty of Sgt Troy (Alastair Simpson).
Troy is such an important character that it was a brave (but justified) decision to cast the multi-talented composer and musical director as the heartless soldier. But while Alastair was running between the musicians’ marquee and the main acting area, the Players’ Patchwork Orchestra was in the able hands of its leader, Shoko Middleton.
It would be invidious to single out any of the fine individual performances of the other characters. Suffice to say that on a perfect midsummer’s evening, in the gorgeous vicarage garden at Cerne Abbas, we were all delightfully “far from the madding crowd” and loving every minute.
The production is also at Came House on 5th and 6th July.