The Mayor of Casterbridge, New Hardy Players

THERE will always be discussion about which of Hardy’s Wessex novels is the greatest. Many would say Tess of the d’Urbevilles, which is unquestionably the best known, or Far From The Madding Crowd, the one that offers a happy future for the two central characters, or The Return of the Native, with its powerful evocation of landscape and the seasonal passage of life.

But New Hardy Players’ production of The Mayor of Casterbridge, adapted by playwright Philip Goulding and directed by Tim Laycock and Emma Hill, makes a fair bid for this being the greatest of all.

It is a huge book – a challenge to adapt – with a towering central figure, Michael Henchard. He has the stature of a tragic hero, a flawed man whose uncontrollable temper sews the seeds of his own destruction, despite his intelligence and courage. There is a doomed nobility about the character which is convincingly portrayed by this production – and actor Michael Staddon.

After a gala opening night at Dorset Museum in Dorchester, NHP toured the play to various halls, ending with two performances at the Sturminster Newton Exchange.

Most people will be familiar with the company’s summer open air tours with huge casts and a small orchestra, but this production was inevitably subject to Covid restrictions. But the scale of this story, set over more than 20 years, and with famous set-piece scenes such as the Weydon Priors Fair, the royal visit and the skimmity ride, requires crowds and noise. This was cleverly achieved with archive photographs and action scenes filmed against a green screen.

Henchard, the Mayor of Casterbridge, was played by Michael Staddon, with Alistair Simpson, NHP’s musical director, as the young Henchard, whose drunken decision to sell his wife, Susan at the hiring fair, sets in train the drama of lives blighted and friendships destroyed.

One of the great strengths of Hardy as a novelist is the complex shading of his characters. Few are just good or bad – both Henchard and Farfrae (Tom Marsh) have flaws that bring them inexorably into conflict.

The multiple layers of the story were cleverly unravelled, and there were great performances from the whole cast, from pompous Lawyer Joyce (Alban O’Brien) to simple but loyal Abel Whittrle (Jonathan White), from the glamorous but calculating Lucetta (Katie Gallego) to the weaselly Joshua Jopp (Tom Archer).

The central but difficult role of Elizabeth Jane Henchard was played by Amelia Chorley. She is pulled in so many directions, between her poor widowed mother (Liz Bennett), the man she comes to know as her father, the man she falls in love with and finally the real father she thought had died at sea. Throughout the roller-coaster of her life at Casterbridge, Elizabeth Jane develops a quiet strength and a deep sympathy for the flawed people around her.

This was one of the finest productions by the New Hardy Players. There are two more (currently sold out) performances in December, at the museum.

Pictured: Michael Staddon as the Mayor of Casterbridge in his pomp

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