IT was a scene that you feel Thomas Hardy would richly have enjoyed – as the New Hardy Players’ 10th anniversary production of The Return of the Native reached its stormy climax, the rain, which had been playing with the audience for about half an hour, came down in sheets and the thunder rattled round. We didn’t know whether the claps were from the theatrical sound system or the heavens above!
But it takes more than a bit of rain to put a good cast off their performance – or to dampen the attention of an English audience – and in due course the storm abated, the umbrellas were put away, my friend and I emerged from under our shared waterproof and the play moved from tragedy to its hopeful finale.
If you are a Hardy fan, and not one of those who complain how grim his stories are (all too often people who haven’t actually read them), you know how much humour and music there is among the dramas and tragedies. The New Hardy Players have developed a style of performance that emphasises this important aspect of the great writer’s work – celebrating “the vital contrast he created between ordinary life and extraordinary tragedy,” as the Players’ chairman Andy Worth puts it in the very interesting programme.
The Return of the Native, one of the greatest of the Wessex novels, centres around the tightly woven stories of five people – Thomasin Yeobright, a young woman who is loved by one man, Diggory Venn, the Reddleman, but who falls for another, the attractive but reckless Damon Wildeve. He is besotted with the mysterious and discontented Eustacia Vye. Eustacia is a magnet for men but her haughty, restless personality makes her a rival for the affections of Clym Yeobright with his mother, Mrs Yeobright, who is Thomasin’s aunt. Clym is the “native” whose return from Paris triggers the complex series of events that ends in tragedy at the height of a storm on Egdon Heath. The heath itself is a powerful character in the story.
Around these people and their tortured, tangled lives and loves, the villagers of the Heath watch, comment, gossip and follow the patterns and rituals of the seasons, from spring weddings to Bonfire Night, furze cutting to the Christmas mummers plays.
Two talented young actors take the pivotal roles of Eustacia and Clym. Kitty Sansom captures the capricious nature of Eustacia, an intelligent young woman trapped in a rural landscape devoid of the colour, fashion, music and people that she craves. Her efforts to escape depression lead her to take risks that include meetings with Wildeve (a powerful performance by Anthony Atkin) at Rainbarrow on the Heath and bribing an infatuated villager to let her take his place as the Turkish Knight in the Mummers Play at the Yeobrights’ house.
Clym is played by Toby Ingram, an elegant and handsome figure in the latest Paris fashions, who returns home disillusioned by the vacuous fashionable existence of the city and determined to live a more honest and worthwhile life as a teacher. Captivated by Eustacia, he is inexorably pulled away from his mother (Emma Hill). Thomasin (Amelia Chorley) finds herself a helpless bystander beside the dangerous triangle of her husband, Wildeve, Clym and Eustacia.
Director Howard Payton has created a powerful tension between the central drama and village life, with plenty of excellent music and dancing and costumes designed to reflect the sombre colours of the seasons and the heath, with flashes of colour for the younger characters with their sharply drawn emotional dramas.
The excellent music for The Return of the Native has been composed and arranged by Dorchester-born Alastair Simpson, who also plays the Reddleman. Tim Laycock, the Players’ artistic director, (who plays Granfer Cantle and the Pedlar) helped with Alastair’s research and the dance tunes are either from the Hardy Manuscript or are mentioned in the book.
Special guests at the performance were Lord and Lady Fellowes, joint patrons of the New Hardy Players, who staged their first production (of the same Hardy novel) in 2005 at the Fellowes’ Dorset home, Stafford House. Speaking at the interval, Lord Fellowes reflected on the way the Players have gone from strength to strength. “This is now a very high standard indeed,” he said, praising the production, set, costumes and performances as “really wonderful.”
The New Hardy Players were founded to grant the 100th birthday wish of Norrie Woodhall, sister of Gertrude Bugler, Hardy’s Tess in the original Hardy Players. For five years this remarkable old lady shared her memories of Hardy and his plays, and took part in the New Hardy Players’ production.
The summer tour of The Return of the Native continues at Minterne House, Minterne Magna, on Saturday 11th July, Lulworth Cove on 16th and 17th July and Watercombe House, Owermoigne, on 18th July. All performances are at 7.30pm and you are advised to take a blanket or chair. The gardens are open from 6.30pm for picnics. The performances are raising funds for Weldmar Hospicecare Trust, Julia’s House children’s hospice and Dorset Wildlife Trust.
For more information, visit the website, www.hardyonline.org
Pictured are: Eustacia (Kitty Sansom), with Damon Wildeve (left, Anthony Atkin) and Clym (Toby Ingram); and Clym with his mother (Emma Hill) and Thomasin (Amelia Chorley).